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AN ENGLISH PRIVATE COLLECTION OF ANCIENT GEMS, PART I
PROPERTY FROM A DECEASED ESTATE
Provenance: the collection was formed by the late Gavin Todhunter mainly during the late 1940s-1970s (lots 76, 89-144 and 412).
The engraved gems of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, works of sublime art in miniature, epitomise the unrivalled artistry of craftsmen working over 2000 years ago. Prized and collected avidly in their own day, they have continued to excite the passions of collectors from the Renaissance to the present day. Ancient literature records how highly valued gems were, both for their natural beauty and the quality of their engravings.
Initially, engraved gems served primarily as seals. As early as the 4th millennium B.C. cylinder seals had been used in Mesopotamia for the important function of securing property and goods. The use of signets (either cylinders or stamps) spread from the Near East throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. From the earliest Greek times engraved gems were designed as signets to be impressed on wax attached to documents and correspondence, or on clay to seal goods and valuables. Aeschylus writing in the 5th Century B.C. describes the pride that Klytaemnestra takes in not having tampered with the seals of her husband, Agamemnon, during his long absence during the Trojan war. Aristophanes in his play 'Thesmophoriazusae' tells of the irritation of the Athenian wives with their husbands at having locked and sealed their goods on departure to war and their subsequent attempts to foil them. Accounts in literature abound of masters and slaves outwitting each other with the use and abuse of seals, of ways to tamper with correspondence and the lengths taken to avoid it, on the use of forgery and fraud and its prevention. The universal importance of sealing in the ancient world cannot be underestimated.
Early Mediterranean and Etruscan practice was to wear engraved stones on strings around the neck or wrist, or on swivel-mounted rings, but from the late Archaic Greek period onwards, they were set in finger rings. The signet ring, as well as serving as a signature, became a way of identifying the bearer and even of representing him in his absence. Thus, in Sophokles' play, Elektra recognises Orestes from Agamemnon's seal which he is wearing. In Hellenistic and Roman times the seal of a ruler became the mark of his authority and a successor could be appointed by the gift of the ruler's personal seal. Suetonius recounts how on his death-bed the Emperor Tiberius agonised over whether to part with his ring - and therefore his power - and decided against it.
As well as marking property, securing privacy and establishing authority, in Roman times gems were increasingly worn and given as tokens of love and fidelity, political affiliation, and also as amulets. Certain stones had amuletic or medicinal properties ascribed to them. Pliny the Elder writing in the 1st Century A.D., as well as making a serious study and classification of gems, also records the superstitions of the time which invested particular stones with magical properties. Thus amethyst prevents drunkenness; a certain type of agate protects from scorpion and spider bites; haematite is good for the eyes and liver, gains requests addressed to kings, is useful in lawsuits and, mixed with pomegranate, cures those who vomit blood. These apotropaic gems often had magical inscriptions and represented syncretistic Egyptianised and Graeco-Roman deities.
Pliny also explained that the wide popularity of gems resulted from the lavish dactyliothecae (ring cabinets), captured from Hellenistic kings by Pompey and Julius Caesar, which they brought back and paraded in Rome. Julius Caesar, an avid collector, dedicated six cabinets in the temple of Venus Genetrix. These miniature works of art, some of them major masterpieces, were treasured as functional seals and ornamental jewels. From the Archaic period through to the Roman Empire intense rivalry developed among collectors and prices became extraordinarily high.
During the Hellenistic period (from 3rd Century B.C.) engraved gems began to be incorporated into gold and silver vessels and their use as ornaments became the rage during the Roman Imperial period. Jewellery, clothing, furniture, arms and armour, even musical instruments were decorated profusely with precious stones. The number of rings worn increased from one, until the fashion allowed for rings to be worn on several fingers and on up to three joints of the same finger. The wearing of seal stones which, in Greek times had been in use only among the wealthy had, by Roman times, become widespread.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, the passion for engraved gems waned and it was not until the Renaissance that the fashion for all things classical returned. From the 15th Century Popes, Princes and antiquarians on the continent were acquiring cabinets of gems and coins, sculpture and paintings. The fashion spread to England and by the early 17th Century the interest in classical gems was enormous. Collecting gem cabinets and rarities became a priority amongst the aristocracy to mark the owners out as men of learning and taste. By the 19th Century, the collecting of gems spread to the wealthy middle class, to soldiers and diplomats who sought them out on their travels. The interest in engraved gems has persisted and remains as strong as ever in the 21st Century, even if less widespread than in former times when a classical education was considered a sine qua non.
Lots 89-144 represent the first part of a fine private collection of ancient gems which is remarkable for its breadth. Included are Etruscan, Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Sassanian engraved gems and cameos, representing a wide variety of subjects including gods, goddesses, heroes, portraits, animals, fantastic monsters, magical amulets, daily life and pastoral scenes. An unusual Augustan gem (lot 101) shows a ploughing scene where the ploughman is wearing the long robes of a priest and drives a cow and a bull, symbolizing the marking out of the boundaries of a new city. The figure here could well represent the Emperor Augustus himself in an allusion to the founding of the new Roman state. Early examples include a Greek 4th Century B.C. agate scaraboid (lot 90) depicting Aphrodite, shown holding a sword and scabbard - a possible reference to the disarming of Mars (war) by love, and an Etruscan 5th Century B.C. scaraboid engraved with a giant (lot 89).
Combination gems, also referred to as "grylloi", composed of fanciful combinations of human, animal and vegetable elements are well represented, including a fine cornelian example dating to the 1st Century B.C./A.D (lot 133). These were intended to attract the gaze of the evil eye so as to lessen its effect on the intended victim. Magical gems are well represented including an attractive dark stone with Harpocrates seated on a lotus flower in a papyrus boat worshipped by a baboon (lot 141), both solar deities alluding to the rising and rebirth of the new sun in the person of the revitalised Osiris. Thus comfort was given to the wearer of the ring, with the certainty of resurrection and perhaps the restoration of health.
This collection also includes a number of fine intaglios in late 18th and 19th Century gold ring settings, which can be traced back to well-known collections such as Medina, Bessborough, Guilhou, Marlborough and Southesk. The mounts confirm the esteem in which gems were held at this time, the gems forming part of the cabinets of curiosities so popular among these connoisseurs who saw themselves as direct heirs of the Romans.
Antique Jewellery, 20 May 2003, for 18th and 19th century neo-classical intaglios and cameos from this collection.
Antiquities, 29 October 2003, for Part II of the ancient gem collection.
J. D. Beazley, The Lewes House Collection of Ancient Gems, Oxford, 1920.
B. Y. Berry, Ancient Gems from The Collection of Burton Y. Berry, Indiana University Art Museum, 1968.
J. Boardman, Engraved Gems: The Ionides Collection, London, 1968.
C. Bonner, Studies in Magical Amulets, chiefly Graeco-Egyptian, Michigan, 1950.
Lady Helena Carnegie (ed.), Catalogue of the Collection of Antique Gems Formed by James, Ninth Earl of Southesk, K.T., London, 1908.
Christie, Manson & Woods, The Marlborough Gems, London, 26-29 June 1899.
S. De Ricci, Catalogue of a Collection of Ancient Rings Formed by the late E. Guilhou, Paris, 1912.
A. Delatte and Ph. Derchain, Les Intailles Magiques Gréco-Égyptiennes, Paris, 1964.
A. Furtwängler, Die Antiken Gemmen, Leipzig, Berlin, 1900.
M. Henig, A Corpus of Roman Engraved Gemstones from British Sites, Oxford, 1978.
M. Henig, The Lewis Collection of Gemstones, Oxford, 1975.
M. Henig, The Content Family Collection of Ancient Cameos, Oxford, 1990.
M. Henig and M. Whiting, Engraved Gems from Gadera in Jordan, The Sa'd Collection of Intaglios and Cameos, Oxford, 1987.
M. Henig, M. Whiting and D. Scarisbrick, Classical Gems, Ancient and Modern Intaglios and Cameos in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1994.
M. Maaskant-Kleibrink, Catalogue of the Engraved Gems in the Royal Coin Cabinet The Hague, The Hague, 1978.
S. Michel, Magische Gemmen, München, 2001.
L. Natter, Catalogue des pierres gravées, tant en relief qu'en creux, de Mylord Comte de Bessborough, London, 1761.
G. M. A. Richter, Engraved Gems of the Romans, London, 1971.
M. H. Nevil Story-Maskelyne, The Marlborough Gems, privately printed, 1870.
L. Tondo and F. M. Vanni, Le Gemme Dei Medici E Dei Lorena Nel Museo Archeologico Di Firenze, Florence, 1990.