Saturday, September 11, 2010

Story of a gem; Discovery, disappointment and the joy of learning

Dear Reader,
I live to find things, and frequently my hunches are proven correct, many times there is no way to fully prove a piece, and then sometimes I am just wrong. This story is a case of being wrong on my initial hopes, but surprisingly, I am very happy as I have learned a great deal and still own yet another precious piece of history.

The story starts with a visit to a friend on 47th St. in NYC, in the jewelry district. My friend is a dealer in antique jewelry and frequently he has pieces with engraved gems. This day he showed me a beautiful engraved imperial Roman portrait in chalcedony, set in a Georgian gold ring. The assumption he made was that the gem was also 18th Century, but when I looked at it I thought it might be ancient, and bought it. (see below)

Intaglio of a Roman Emperor, carved in blue chalcedony, set in a gold ring.
The gem measures 2.25 cm long.

The gem seen in transmitted light from the back.

You can see in the photos above the incredible quality of the carving. At first because of this high quality, I assumed it had to be Julio-Claudian, a period which represents the apex of gem engraving in antiquity. However the chopped military hair cut is not typical of imperial portraits of the time, the Julio-Claudian emperors sported long locks with distinctive arrangements which differed emperor to emperor and is one of their identifying attributes. However the profile is very close to that of Caligula, and he had a military upbringing so I thought perhaps it was him. However a gem enthusiast who got in touch with me at this time and to whom I sent images of the gem to, pointed out that not only was the hair style wrong, but so was the cloak with its prominent button completely wrong for a 1st Century date. He presumed it therefor to be an 18th century forgery. Then, in a subsequent correspondence he made the leap in thought to the 3rd Century AD and identified the subject as Gordian III, in which case the hair and cloak all were exactly correct. We at this point assumed the gem to be ancient as an 18th Century engraver would not do a gem carving of this quality of an obscure late emperor of little note. So it had to be ancient!

Certainly the coin portraits of Gordian III look a lot like the intaglio, although there is something about it which is not quite identical, which I attributed to the different media. See below:

A gold coin of Gordian III, which corresponds in all respects to my gem, the wreath, cloak and profile. The face is not identical though but very close, at least the profile is.

Needless to say I was thrilled and sent photos to Max Bernheimer of Christies who has a great interest in ancient gems and jewelry. After a first excitement and highish estimate, he asked about its history. I had none for it, the jewelry dealer I purchased it from had got it from two men whose collection of jewelry he bought. They were all over place in terms of taste and quality and this fine piece was not typical of their collection and there was no history as to where they got it from. But I told Max that obviously the gem had a history, it was set in a Georgian ring, but that my library was inadequate to fully research it.

The ring from the side showing the multi layered bezel setting and decoration of the shoulder.
It is clearly an 18th Century setting.

It turned out that Max does have a good library, a day later I got an email with good/bad news. The gem is from the Marlborough Collection, and earlier the Bessborough Collection, going back to the mid 18th Century. This is the most distinguished provenance you could hope for with a gem. The bad news, it is from a series of 40 late emperors carved my Natter to complement the Bessborough Collection which he cataloged as well. Based on gems and engravings, every effort was made to make the gems identifiable and true to Roman types. At first I was disbelieving, happy to have a piece with such a illustrious history, but disappointed my gem was thought not be ancient. My first thought, was who said it was 18th Century? However prompted by Max's revelation, I found the Beazley Archive, which has the entire collection illustrated online in impressions and photos of the gems. And there I found the impression of my gem, marked as by Natter, and described as lost.

The online image on the Beazley Archive website of the wax impression of the gem, described as being of Hostilianus, and whereabouts unknown.

Seeing it online was quite a surprise, and I better understood how Max knew that it was in the Marlborough collection but the identification as Hostilianus surprised me, and also I wondered why it was thought to be by Natter. The Marlborough collection, started by the 3rd Duke of Marlborough in the early 18th Century was greatly increased and developed by the 4th Duke whose acquisitions brought it up to 800 gems. The Dukes bought individual gems, but also acquired entire collections, most notably the Arundel collection created in the 17th Century and then the Bessborough collection which had been published in a catalog written by Laurent Natter in 1761. After the 4th Duke died in 1817, his collection of gems was sold by his family en bloc in 1875 to David Bromilow, who then sold it piecemeal in 1899 at an auction at Christie's London. The gems were dispersed and most lost to scholarship. The Beazley Archive under John Boardman's direction is attempting to relocate the lost gems, out of 800 only about 300 have known whereabouts. To have found one quite by accident is very exciting.

A silver coin of Hostilianus from 250 A.D. Image taken from the Auktionshaus H.D. Rauch, Vienna website.

I guess the coin of Hostilianus looks something like the gem, but he was usually depicted with a radiate crown, not just a laurel wreath. It is not as close a resemblance as it is to the coins of Gordian III.

Once I started looking at the documentation on the Beazley Archive website I learned that Natter described my gem as being of Hostilianus and it was part of a suite of 40 intaglio portraits of later Roman Emperors commissioned to fill out and complement the Earl of Bessborough's collection. It is thought that he carved the suite of himself, although I wonder about that, there is some variety stylistically within the group and it would be a great deal of work to carve so many really fine gems. It is not clear from the catalog that he carved them himself, what is clear is that they were carved for Bessborough, and are therefor all 18th Century.

What I find remarkable about this is how well documented this gem is. See below the scanned copy of the original catalog written by Natter in 1761 of the Bessborough collection.

This is the title page of Natter's catalog.

And here it is, Natter's description of the suite of Roman Emperors, translated here by a friend:

"Series of the Roman emperors from the Second Triumvirate to Valerian.

I shall observe merely that these portraits have all been copied from the best medals and the best ancient engravings; the connoisseurs will easily note the resemblance; in order to further elevate the quality of this collection, the types of gemstones have been varied as much as possible."

My gem is the so called Hostilien, number 38 clearly marked as being in Chalcedony.

Above the catalog description from the 1899 Christies sale. The suite of 40 emperors was sold in bloc, and subsequently dispersed. Interestingly and a clincher is that in the description it is stated that the settings were marked with figures corresponding to the list; on the side of the bezel of the ring is a slightly rubbed 38, clearly marking it as the Hostilianus above.

While initially disappointed to learn that my gem is not ancient, I am thrilled to have something from the Marlborough collection and to have identified a gem thought to be lost that has been actively sought by scholars for years. It is also extremely rare, and rare for me personally to be able to truly get a full understanding of an object. So many objects are unchronicled and one feels that one is guessing; here I now have full knowledge and can see the evidence with my own eyes. This is a thrill for me, and reward in itself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tom, your research is fascinating. Congratulations on your excellent sleuthing. Elisabeth