An Egyptian bronze cat, Ptolemaic period, c. 332-30 B.C. 14¾ in (37.4 cm) high. Estimate $700,000-900,000. Offered in Antiquities on 12 April at Christies in New York

The cat’s whiskers: an important sculpture from Ancient Egypt

A fine and well-provenanced example, this Egyptian bronze cat was made as a votive offering to the goddess Bastet, and is one of the largest examples to survive from antiquity

This 2,300-year-old bronze cat from Egypt is so lifelike ‘it feels like you have a feline friend in the room with you’, says Hannah Fox Solomon, Christie’s Specialist and Head of Department for Ancient Art and Antiquities. ‘Whereas some examples can be angular, or tall and lanky, this one has great proportions and a lifelike, naturalistic feel.’ The cat is a star lot of the Antiquities auction at Christie’s New York on 12 April. The sale also includes more than 130 Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Byzantine, and Near-East objects, including a very rare Sasanian square sardonyx cameo with a bust of King Narseh, who ruled the Sasanian Empire from AD 293 to 302.

The cat sits upright with its tail curled around its paws, its head held proudly and its ears standing to attention. Its feline form is brought to life by precise, naturalistic modelling and the inclusion of fine details such as incised tufts of hair on its ears.

The superb hollow-cast bronze was made during the Ptolemaic period, circa 332-30 BC. This dynasty takes its name from Ptolemy I Soter, a general who served under Alexander the Great and who seized Egypt following the death of the Macedonian conqueror. The last of the Ptolemaic rulers was Cleopatra VII, lover of Julius Caesar and later Mark Antony.

It would have been given as a votive offering to Bastet, the cat-headed goddess of protection, good health and fertility. A mummified cat would originally have been inserted into the body cavity of the sculpture, which has long been lost.

At just under 15 in tall, the cat is a far from typical offering to Bastet. It is among a small group of near-lifesize Egyptian feline bronzes to survive from antiquity. Only a handful of museums have similar excellent examples, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London, which is home to the Gayer-Anderson Cat (named after the British soldier who donated it) from Saqqara.

An Egyptian bronze cat, Ptolemaic period, c. 332-30 B.C. 14¾ in (37.4 cm) high. Estimate $700,000-900,000. Offered in Antiquities on 12 April at Christies in New York
An Egyptian bronze cat, Ptolemaic period, c. 332-30 B.C. 14¾ in (37.4 cm) high. Estimate: $700,000-900,000. Offered in Antiquities on 12 April at Christie's in New York

Fine decorative details also add to the sculpture’s appeal. Holes in the cat’s ears indicate that it would once have worn earrings, probably made of gold, and its eyes would have been embellished with inlaid stones or glass. Incised lines decorate the animal’s chest to create two necklaces: a multi-strand broad collar and a cord with a ‘wadjet-eye’ pendant. The wadjet represents the eye of the god Horus, which was injured but then restored to health, so was a symbol of protection and wellbeing.

‘This is definitely a fancy cat,’ says Solomon. ‘It’s pretty remarkable if you think about the wealth the patron would have had to make such a high-quality offering as this.’ Bronze was more expensive than other materials such as wood or stone, and a piece this size would have been costly.

The Egyptians’ reverence for cats can be traced back more than 5,000 years, when felines were credited with protecting early pharaohs from snakes and scorpions. Their dexterity at hunting mice and other vermin led to their domestication during the Middle Kingdom (around 2030-1650 BC).

Bastet was probably the best known of Egypt’s feline deities and was a benevolent counterpart to Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of destruction. Together they illustrate the complex nature of cats that the Egyptians so admired: on the one hand they could be graceful, vigilant and fertile; on the other, they could be aggressive, destructive and ruthless.

While early depictions of Bastet show her as a lioness, she later took the form of a domestic cat or cat-headed woman. Widely popular throughout Egypt, the centre of her cult was the city of Bubastis, just north of present-day Cairo. Thousands of worshippers would journey there each year for a festival in her honour, where ‘more wine was drunk than in a whole year besides’, according to the Greek historian Herodotus.

An Egyptian bronze cat, Ptolemaic period, c. 332-30 B.C. 14¾ in (37.4 cm) high. Estimate $700,000-900,000. Offered in Antiquities on 12 April at Christies in New York
An Egyptian bronze cat, Ptolemaic period, c. 332-30 B.C. 14¾ in (37.4 cm) high. Estimate: $700,000-900,000. Offered in Antiquities on 12 April at Christie's in New York

Those seeking Bastet’s favour left votive offerings, such as statuettes or cat mummies in wood or bronze vessels, at her temple. The Swiss archaeologist Édouard Naville uncovered thousands of mummified cats at Bubastis during his excavations in the 1880s.

The cat being auctioned at Christie’s was once owned by Robert Sturgis Ingersoll (1891-1973), the president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1948 to 1964. Although he was primarily known for his collection of Modern works by artists such as Chaim Soutine and Modigliani, Ingersoll bought whatever made his ‘arteries jump’, including African art and antiquities.

Solomon compares his collecting habits to today’s ‘cross-category buyers, who are creating more diverse environments by filling out their collections with beautiful objects to complement their paintings’. An image of him with the cat was published in a 1962 edition of National Geographic magazine.

The beauty of the piece and its solid provenance will be attractive to buyers, says Solomon, especially those who might be considering donating their collection to a museum. ‘We think this piece really has everything a collector is looking for,’ says Solomon. ‘Beauty and perfect proportions, good condition and excellent pre-1970 provenance.’