Saturday, October 8, 2011

Discovery: Bronze Eagle with Serpent

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Dear Reader,

I am going to tell another story of making of a discovery, and the effort to confirm it.  I am generally reticent to disclose where I buy things, but in this case I am going to relate the entire experience of discovery and research as I attempt to prove my case.  By sharing this with you, I hope to give the reader a sense of what goes on behind the scenes with art dealers.  The story will also illustrate a problem that both benefits and works against me - the blindness and superficiality of many of the experts in the field of ancient art.  What I mean by this will become clearer as I tell the tale.

In June of last year I went to New York to preview the antiquity auctions, and while at Christie's noticed a sign for a Decorative arts sale that included property from the collection of Michael Hall.  Michael is someone I have known well for many years.  He is a prominent, if controversial, dealer of European Works of Art, specializing in Renaissance bronzes.  He is something of a collector as well, with objects from nearly every culture and time period on the planet; antiquities, African, Asian, the whole gamut.  I was curious to see what he was selling off, so after viewing the antiquities sale, I went upstairs to the room where the bronzes from his collection were displayed.  In a room full of many beautiful Renaissance and later bronzes, was the eagle, hanging by fishing line from the ceiling, described as being 17th Century Italian.  Something about it piqued my interest.  The sculpture had an intensity that I associate with Roman art, and the condition of the piece did not make sense for the date given it.  While it was covered with the type of shiny black patina one associates with Renaissance bronzes, there were damages and small losses, something one sees in ancient pieces, but not later bronzes.  In the past I have encountered ancient bronzes re-patinated in the Renaissance, so am always on the lookout for them.

I was able to register to bid at the sale online, from the comfort of my gallery, and bought the eagle at the low estimate.  Earlier that morning I had some pieces at the Sotheby's antiquity sale, which sold well, so I felt confident to pursue the eagle.  However, Sotheby's wouldn't pay me for a while, so I wasn't sure when or how I would be able to pay for it.  Initially I thought I would just leave it at Christie's until Sotheby's paid me, but that demon of instant gratification got ahold of me, and I went into the City the Tuesday following the auction and paid for the eagle on my American Express card. 

Here is the eagle after I brought it home, still with its shiny black patina.  

The bronze is large, measuring 17 inches across the wings, huge for an ancient bronze. Several things struck me when I first saw it, where the serpent's tail is missing is a hole to attach it, and the serpents head is joined to the body with a tenon and pin.  Also visible here are damages to the leading edge of the wing.

The back.  Note the large round hole, and the areas where the wings join the body and the hole in the tail.
Looking at the back of the bronze its history becomes more apparent. Where the wings join the body there is a discontinuity of the feathers; the areas are blank of detail and look like the metal was applied with a knife, and the large round hole is odd.  There are dents and dings apparent.  It is evident on this view that the wings were broken off the body and re-attached with solder by brazing, and the hole was probably created at that time.  The damages one expects on ancient objects, but makes little sense for a later piece.  The hole in the tail and the others on the wings, not visible here, again indicate a use; perhaps it was attached to something else.  But it does not appear that this was created as a stand alone bronze statuette as most Renaissance bronzes were. 

Detail of the bronze

In this detail shot you can see the intense interaction between the eagle and serpent.  While held in the eagle's claws, the serpent is poised to strike and looks directly into the eagles eyes. The eagle for his part, while holding the serpent, is looking down upon it; they seem locked into a mutual embrace for lack of a better analogy.  While this can be seen as a confrontation of opposites, the ultimate earth dweller and the ultimate creature of the air, to me it seems less a contest than a dialogue.  This is something you encounter in ancient art, but different in spirit than that of the Renaissance and later periods.

In post antique times the snake is often associated with evil, the Christians saw the serpent offering the apple to Eve as the Devil.  However in antiquity snakes were often revered, there were certain cults where snakes played an important sacred role. Apollo is associated with snakes, in his divination role, and his son Asclepius has a snake as part of his symbol. Hermes has snakes twined around his staff, the caduceus and on the Athenian acropolis in the Erechteion, a sacred snake was kept in the foundation, tended by priestesses who fed it honey cakes.  Its welfare was considered essential to Athen's prosperity and security, a refusal of food by the snake was considered a very bad omen.  Snakes were associated with divination because they creep in the bowels of the earth, bringing her secrets back with them. The eagle, as the largest of the birds of prey, is associated with the sky, and a symbol and form of Zeus, the king of the Gods.  While one could see the sculpture as symbolic of the battle between the earth and sky, dark and light, I see a dialogue, an oppositional but equal relationship. So while the eagle is holding the serpent in its talons, and appears triumphant, we do not see the eagle killing it, and I think there is a reason for that.  What we see are two powerful creatures, rich in symbolic meaning, captured in this moment of balance.

It is not just the representation and feeling transmitted by the bronze, nor just the condition that lead me to think this sculpture is possibly ancient.  There are specific stylistic features that also support an early dating.  The feathers on the eagle's body, head and legs are treated sculpturally almost like fur, a wavy mane of sorts that goes from the head to the feet. This is something I recalled seeing in other Roman sculptures of eagles, but not in later ones.  The feathers of the wings and tail are done with a confident rather loose linear manner, probably first in the wax and then cold carved after casting to make them clearer.  Only the feathers on the bottom flapping edge of the wing are done in a more dimensional manner.  The consistent, strong, but not fussy manner of rendering the feathers is typical of Roman bronzes. 

However, to prove my hunch correct, I needed to see what the patina was, if it would come off, and what was under it.  I also needed to find parallels for the subject and the style of its rendering.   Only after doing my homework would I approach other experts.  I had already sent photos to several people knowledgeable about ancient art, but it was before I had cleaned it, and they responded that they didn't see it as ancient.  I am pretty sure it was simply the surface that put them off, I have often found the "experts" cannot see beyond the surface of a piece.

In subsequent installments here, I will take you through the process of my researching it, and while at first I had no idea where this would lead, it could lead to confirmation of my hunch, or disprove it.


Robert Sekulovich said...

Hey Tom,

I would not guess ancient either, and this has nothing to do with the patina. Very interested in seeing it after your restoration though, I may yet change my mind!

Andy Hessey said...

i have one complete including the mounting pin yours is missing in the back in black patina with no Damage ! dug up in a village in the UK which is steeped in roman History and three hoards also found one of silver coins two of gold coins . if you would like to view pictures of a complete bronze with pin fixing in back to wings please contact me e-mail