Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Antiquities Auctions and the Guennol Goddess

It is upon us, the fall/winter antiquity auctions, Sotheby's and Christies in New York, the first week of December. There are two antiquity auctions each year, one in summer, the second in early December. This past summer saw the sale of items from the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY, which had the spectacular Artemis which went for so much money.(See my old post "Out with the old, in with the New") This upcoming auction has another star, the Guennol Goddess, which has been on loan for decades to the Brooklyn Museum, but the owners have decided to sell it now.

Statuette of lioness goddess, Elamite, ca. 3000 B.C.
Magnesite or crystaline limestone, Height: 3 1/4 inches.

This monumental miniature statue depicts a mysterious goddess in the form of a lioness, with drilled holes which may have been fitted with tufts of fur for tail, mane and ornaments. Very little is known about the figure, it was purchased in the early 20th Century in Baghdad, and then handled by Joseph Brummer, the venerable dealer of antiquities of his time, sold by him in 1931, and purchased by the present owners Alastair and Edith Martin in 1948. It has been on loan to the Brooklyn Museum since they purchased it, and I have known it since I became interested in ancient art as it has often been published as one of the seminal objects of Near Eastern art. I would visit it in the Brooklyn Museum, and own a museum replica of it. I am not alone in admiring this sculpture, she has become a member of the Canon of Ancient Art. Everyone with an interest in the field will inevitably refer to this piece as one of their favorite works of ancient art if they want to seem to be in the know. Outside the field however, she is very little known, she is not like the Treasures of Tutankhamen for example, which captured the public imagination. Admiration of this little figure allows entry into a exclusive club of cognoscenti, proves that your taste and knowledge is so refined that a miniature 3 inch tall sculpture looms large in your mind.

Which brings up a big problem for Sotheby's since their estimate is what you would expect for a monumental, I mean BIG, work of art: $14,000,000. to $18,000,000. Yes that is right, fourteen to eighteen million dollars. If art value is awarded solely on historic and artistic importance, than the value is certainly there; she is as important and far rarer than many other works of art that sell in that rarefied range. However, high value art also generally has a wow factor that translates out of its field; i.e., anyone looking at it will be impressed by it, even if they don't fully know what it is or why it is important. Everyone knows Picasso by now, Rothko is widely known, Jeff Koons' stainless extravaganzas which sold for so much this fall are ostentatiously large and flashy, if you don't know who he is you will look at them and be impressed regardless. The Artemis was a wow piece, so complete, so perfect, large enough to demand your attention, and beautiful. I fear that this piece, which is truly priceless in its importance, is not of the type that will command this type of valuation.

The gamble is evident in their promotion of the piece, you have the plummy voiced Englishman Hugh Hildesley, executive Vice President of Sotheby's, doing a video lecture on the piece, making a case for the valuation despite its size, and talking about Faberge eggs as a comparable miniature object of high value. Interesting to me they even need to make the case which indicates that they do. If you know what I mean. Below is a link to the mini video:

I will be very interested to see how it does.

Another piece in the Sotheby's sale that does command my attention because of its beauty and scale is the monumental head of Zeus in marble below:

Monumental Head of Zeus, ca First Century A.D.
Marble, Height 17 1/2 inches (44.5 cm)

Now this is a show stopper; it is large, well over life sized, and while fragmentary, there is more than enough there to allow for a complete mental image of the God in all his glory. The condition of the piece, aside from its completeness, is extraordinarily well preserved, the surfaces retain their original finish, the hair is deeply drilled and undercut, the lips full, sharply edged and sensuous and the eyes are deep set under the commanding brow, with the lower lid having that line under the edge of the lid giving it more definition which is only found in marble sculptures of the highest quality from the Roman Period. Its estimate is a relatively modest $300,000. to $500,000. in comparison to the Goddess. I suppose the logic is that heads of Zeus are not as rare a thing, however, large beautiful ones like this, on the market and not in museums, that is quite rare. And this head has an impeccable and old provenance so one not need fear buying it.

I really don't mean to be talking down the Guennol Goddess, she is one of my favorite ancient objects, but I wonder if Sotheby's is not overplaying their hand. And I am quite sorry she is no longer going to be at the Brooklyn Museum, it gave that institution some added depth and significance. It is a shame that the Martin's did not just give it to them, but the type of money being estimated would tempt most people who are not super rich. I don't know anything about the Martins, they might be really rich, but given how long ago they bought this piece, when such things could be bought by any professional and not just the super rich, I suspect they are not in the uber class of wealth. Another aspect that troubles me, is that this object was preserved by sheer chance, so little survives from that era, that this does is due to pure happenstance. What I mean to say is that we have no idea what status this object had in its own era, it could have been just a minor thing, even though today it has great impact, who knows what else they created then, which has been lost. Perhaps that is why it is important, but future finds may supplant it. We shall see, I wish them and Sotheby's luck and hope it commands the price they think, it will really make people take notice of ancient art as being worthy of interest.


M.Shawn said...

I have one question. My AQ2 dont post all my glyphs it just leave like 30-70 glyphs in inventory. Did i do something wrong or? Please write back.


Japan Auction said...

Wow! I wonder how old and how valuable these things are? They've got to be priceless, especially the first one that looked like a tiger. Are these for sale too? How much is it?

Used dozer auction said...

Great! it's a valuable thing. We can not compare it with price. It's a priceless.