A SASANIAN SARDONYX CAMEO WITH A PORTRAIT BUST OF KING NARSEH
A SASANIAN SARDONYX CAMEO WITH A PORTRAIT BUST OF KING NARSEH
A SASANIAN SARDONYX CAMEO WITH A PORTRAIT BUST OF KING NARSEH
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A SASANIAN SARDONYX CAMEO WITH A PORTRAIT BUST OF KING NARSEH
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THE COLLOT CAMEO
A SASANIAN SARDONYX CAMEO WITH A PORTRAIT BUST OF KING NARSEH

REIGN 293-303 A.D.

Details
A SASANIAN SARDONYX CAMEO WITH A PORTRAIT BUST OF KING NARSEH
REIGN 293-303 A.D.
Mounted in a gold frame, circa 1810, and as a silver and diamond brooch, circa 1850.
1 3⁄4 in. (4.4 cm.) long, cameo
3 1⁄2 in. (8.8 cm.) long, with mount
Provenance
Jean-Pierre Collot (1764-1852), Montpellier and Paris; thence by descent to his daughter, Antoinette Pauline Victoire Collot (1814- 1895) and her husband, Edmond Marie Louis Elie Le Due de Lillers (1801-1873), Paris; thence by continuous descent within the family.
Haute joaillerie & tabatieres en or, Millon & Mathias, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 28 March 2018, lot 9.
Literature
M.R. Shayegan, "The Cameo of Warahran and the Kusano-Sassanians," Bulletin of the Asia Institute, vol. 30, 2020-2021, p. 2, fig. 3b.

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Lot Essay

Sasanian cameos are exceedingly rare, with approximately only 50 examples known, a great contrast to the other glyptic arts of the period (stamp seals, ring stones, and clay bullae) that survive in large numbers (see p. 310 in M. Henig and H. Molesworth, The Complete Content Cameos). The sparsity of material makes this newly re-discovered royal cameo all the more significant.

The cameo presented here is exceptional, not only for the quality of the carving and the rarity of the subject but also for its rectangular form, which is unique. It is the only known Sasanian example of this shape to survive from antiquity. In fact, even within the much larger Greek and Roman repertoire, square or rectangular gems are unusual (there are some Greco-Persian tabloids, such as no. 304 in J. Boardman, Greek Gems and Finger Rings; two Hellenistic examples, nos. 18 and 105 in D. Plantzos, Hellenistic Engraved Gems; and a Roman gem, pl. II, 34 in M.-P. Levesque de Gravelle, Recueil de pierres gravees antiques).

The bust is enclosed within an unusual beveled frame, which, like the portrait itself, exploits the natural banded layers of the stone, caramel brown and bluish-white on a black ground. Narseh is shown in profile to the right, his wavy hair bound in a diadem, with a row of scrolling curls below the plain band. The diadem is knotted at the back of the head, with two long streamers billowing below. The narrow groove of the diadem exhibits scoring along its length that suggests it was once inlaid in gold, now lost. His relatively short beard is composed of similar scrolling curls, overlaid by his long serpentine mustache. He has an arching brow and a large, almond-shaped eye with the pupil and iris placed high and forward within the sclera. His long straight nose is rounded at the tip, and the lips are slightly parted. A drop-shaped pendant is suspended from his ear. Narseh dons a tunic with a six-petalled rosette at the shoulder and a smooth collar, with a decorative band worn diagonally over the shoulder punctuated by dotted circles along its length. The form of this garment, the hair style and the diadem are archaizing, recalling images of Parthian kings, especially of Mithridates II (121-91 B.C.), as seen on his coinage (see pl. 141B in A.U. Pope, A Survey of Persian Art).

While depictions of King Narseh are exceedingly rare, the attribution of this cameo to the king is confirmed by comparison to a garnet intaglio portrait in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (see fig. 1). The Paris gem and the cameo presented here share a number of stylistic traits, including the hair style and the treatment of the eye, nose, mustache and earring. Although the Paris gem has an inscription around its edges for Shapur (“the Mazdaean Lord Shapur, King of Kings of Iran”), it is thought to have been added later, perhaps during the reign of either Shapur II or III. The Paris gem is identified as depicting Narseh on account of the form of his crown, in this case a fluted diadem, since each successive Sasanian king wore a unique crown. The same fluted diadem is seen on a rock-cut relief at Naqsh-i-Rustam depicting Narseh’s investiture and on his coins (see pls. 157B and 251K in Pope, op. cit.).

Narseh was the seventh king of the Sasanian Empire, ruling from 293-303 A.D., the youngest son of Shapur I. During the reign of Shapur, he served as governor of the important eastern provinces of Hind, Sakastan and Turan. Following his father’s death in 270, the crown passed to an older son, Hormizd I, and after a brief reign of one year, he was succeeded by another of Shapur’s sons, Bahram I, who gave Narseh the governorship of the western province of Armenia. Bahram I’s reign was also short (271-274), and he was succeeded by his son Bahram II and shortly thereafter by his grandson Bahram III. His rule was opposed by the aristocracy, who favored Narseh, and when Bahram III’s army defected, Narseh ascended to the throne. During his reign the Sasanians and the Romans clashed, with Narseh eventually forcing the retreat of Galerius (serving as Caesar under the Emperor Diocletian) from Mesopotamia. Vowing revenge, Galerius later invaded Sasanian Armenia and won a decisive battle there (commemorated on his arch at Thessaloniki) in which Narseh’s harem and many nobles were taken into captivity. He was forced to sign a humiliating treaty and died a few years later.

The practice of cutting cameos, invented during the Hellenistic Period, was adopted by the Sasanians from the Romans. It is well known that following the sack of Antioch by Shapur I in 253 A.D., many Roman artisans were brought to the Sasanian homeland (see for example the Roman style mosaics from the Royal Palace at Bishapur, Iran, no. 87 in P.O. Harper, The Royal Hunter, Art of the Sasanian Empire). One of the most outstanding Sasanian cameos in existence is a large oval layered sardonyx depicting Shapur I and the Roman Emperor Valerian (pl. 183 in B. Fowlkes-Childs and M. Seymour, The World Between Empires, Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East). Both are on horseback, with Shapur grasping Valerian by the wrist, symbolic for the Roman Emperor's capture at the Battle of Edessa in 260. As with the Bishapur mosaics, it is thought to be the work of a Roman craftsman.

The modern history of the Narseh cameo is equally as rich as the ancient one. It was collected by Jean-Pierre Collot (1774-1852), the French banker and intimate of Napoleon Bonaparte. After financing the Coup of 18 Brumaire which brought Bonaparte to power in 1797 with five hundred thousand francs in gold, Collot was appointed commissary for the French army in Italy (see p. 355ff, L.A.F. de Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, vol. 1). This highly lucrative role enabled Collot to participate in the art-buying frenzy which followed the French invasions of Venice and the Papal States. His collection included Old Master paintings as well as engraved gems, including a magnificent cameo acquired from the Museum Christianum in the Vatican depicting the head of St. John the Baptist on a dish. This cameo was attributed to the engraver Matteo del Nassaro (circa 1490-1547), and was seen in 1806 by the antiquary Aubin-Louis Millin de Grandmaison in Collot’s jolie dachyliotheque, or gem cabinet, in Paris (see p.717 in A.L.Millin, Dictionnaire des Beaux Arts, vol. 1). While much of his collection was sold at auction after his death, the Sasanian cameo was gifted by Collot to his daughter Victoire Pauline Antoinette Collot (1814-1895), La Marquise de Lillers. It would remain in the family until its sale at auction in Paris in 2018.

The cameo was originally mounted in a decorative engraved gold frame of circa 1810, presumably commissioned by Jean-Pierre Collot. This was later embellished with a more elaborate mount of silver-topped gold circa 1850, likely commissioned by La Marquise following her inheritance. The mid-19th century rectangular mount has two rows of small old mine-cut diamonds enclosing a central row of larger old mine-cut diamonds. The top and bottom rows are centered by a large old mine-cut diamond, and the frame is surmounted by a central ring and a symmetrical undulating ribbon, also set with old mine-cut diamonds. The velvet-lined box bears the French heraldic crown for a Collot marquis on the exterior of the lid.

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