Collecting guide: ancient Greek helmets
Offering a fascinating insight into bygone battles and the societies that fought them, ancient Greek helmets are a worthy addition to any collection. Here’s everything you need to know
Ancient Greek helmets are a source of fascination for the modern audience as they provide a glimpse into this ancient culture and how their warriors functioned. Primarily, helmets were physical protection, worn in battles beginning in the Archaic period, together with greaves, chest plates and shields in many cases.
Helmets were also often symbols of status, with more ornate examples worn by an elite group. ‘Many buyers are looking to understand the ancient world through physical objects,’ says Hannah Fox Solomon, Head of Department for Ancient Art and Antiquities at Christie's in New York. Ancient helmets are just one example from which to do so.
The Illyrian helmet, one of two helmets to appear in the early 7th century BC, is the most common type. It is recognisable by its square face guard and pointed non-hinged cheek pieces, as well as the smooth dome featuring raised parallel ridges to which a crest made from horsehair, wood or leather would be pinned in place by a rivet at the crown.
The Corinthian helmet is the other 7th century helmet, with its characteristic almond-shaped eyes and rounded nose guard. ‘I think that the eyes are especially beautiful,’ says Solomon. ‘It's an immediately recognisable shape: the domed head, the slightly flaring neck guard, the elongated eye openings . Aesthetically, it’s a beautiful form that has a lyrical nature.’
This Pilos helmet, a later and more simple variation, features a conical dome with a recessed band along the lower edge, most likely mirroring a felt or animal-skin cap worn by herdsmen. It is a lighter helmet, with hinged cheek-pieces, and more versatile for the warrior, allowing for more flexibility in battle. There are some ornate examples with molded decorations, as can be seen with lot 88 of April 12th’s sale, with confronting rams above the crown of the head. One can only imagine that the wearer of this helmet, which originally had large sheet bronze horns emerging from each side, an elaborate crest at the top, and possible hinged cheek-guards, must have had an intimidating appearance in battle.
Helmets also teach the modern viewer about ancient craftsmanship and technological advancement in bronzemaking. What began with one or two helmet prototypes evolved to encompass shapes and sizes designed for increased efficiency and functionality.
This development can be seen with Corinthian helmets, for example, which originally covered the face for maximum protection but also restricted the ability to see, hear or breathe. Gradually, the eye holes grew, and the nose guard became smaller to become more versatile.
The Pilos helmet also shows helmet evolution, developing from the Corinthian form. Solomon explains: ‘The nose guard disappears and the cheek guards are no longer made in one part with the dome that protects the head. Instead they are attached by hinges, which increased the flexibility.’
As technology moved forward, craftsmen would create helmets from a single sheet, meaning they were quicker to produce as well as ‘more stable and sturdier for the warrior’.
As with many objects on the market, condition has a major impact on the value of a helmet. ‘Some helmets are perfect, but some helmets have evidence of what we call the “death blow”,’ says Solomon, referring to damage on the side of the dome. ‘While I can only hypothesise whether or not that is true, occasionally you’ll find helmets with damage that makes you wonder if it was the result of battle.’
Importantly, however, not all damage is immediately visible. Often helmets need to be x-rayed in order to establish their condition. An x-ray can reveal cracks, areas lost or that have been filled with modern material, all of which affects the value.
Ancient Greek helmets have, by definition, been around for a long time, and often need some extra care to ensure they remain in perfect shape.
‘A stable climate is necessary for keeping the bronze healthy,’ says Solomon. ‘You need to watch out for bronze disease, which can develop with a dramatic change in humidity.’ Bronze disease is a type of corrosion that leaves a powdery green residue on the surface of the metal and, once it sets in, it can destroy a helmet if untreated.
The patina or the weathering of the bronze surface varies widely depending on its burial conditions. For example, the bronze ages differently depending on the minerals in the soil and whether the climate is humid or acrid.
No two patinas are the same. ‘Different patinas appeal to different tastes: some people really like that crusty, luscious textured surface while others prefer a smoother matte finish. The colours range from malachite to azurite to maroon and shades of brown,’ says Solomon. ‘Sometimes you even get a golden colour, called a river patina. It’s up to the buyer to pursue what appeals to them.’
From mouldings to inscriptions and raised reliefs, there are countless decorative embellishments on ancient Greek helmets capable of bringing these head coverings to life — and adding to their value at auction.
A particularly striking example was a bronze Chalcidian helmet that sold for a record $1,039,500 in 2017. This piece stood out for its elaborate decoration, including the finely detailed ovolo moulding below the crown, intricate palmettes and striking spirals on the cheek guards.
The embellishments on the helmet likely indicate the warrior’s status in society. ‘It is clear that the finely perforated border or the raised mouldings on the dome were not a matter of function by and large, so these would have been an aesthetic rather than functional choice,’ Solomon says. It seems likely that those with more elaborate helmets would have been of a higher rank than the average warrior.
While many collectors buy ancient Greek helmets to sit alongside Greek marble torsos, Roman portrait busts, Japanese swords or Medieval European Calvary parade helmets, they fit in just as well next to contemporary paintings or sculptures.
‘Some people collect helmets because they like the silhouette and think they look great next to a modern painting,’ Solomon says, adding that artists like Pablo Picasso and Cy Twombly were fascinated with ancient art and culture.
‘The helmet has a minimalist quality, which makes it versatile and easy to live with in my opinion. At the same time, it embodies an anthropomorphic nature, especially the eyes; you can feel a connection with it and to the ancient world, without it becoming distracting in your everyday environments.’
For those starting to collect ancient Greek helmets, it can be hard to know which sources to trust, and what to look out for. In this field, the credibility of the source and the type of documentation available is crucial.
‘People need to feel comfortable with what they’re buying in terms of the condition, quality and the ownership history,’ says Solomon. In practice, this means that collectors should buy from a reputable place and learn as much as they can about a helmet’s recent provenance and ownership history, and date that history back as far as possible.
There are several considerations that come into play when purchasing a Greek helmet, but ultimately collectors should select something that speaks to them personally.
‘If you’re starting out, buy the helmet that strikes you,’ Solomon says. ‘Helmets are a matter of personal taste. I personally like a richer, crusty patina with the brighter blue-green hue, but buy the best you can in terms of quality and condition and the style that you enjoy.’