Sunday, December 4, 2011

A large Gem Fragment

Dear Readers,
I recently purchased the carnelian carved gem fragment, pictured above, set in a cheap silver setting allowing it to be worn as a pendant.  I found it at an antiques show with a very nice antique dealer who I have purchased things from before.  I thought it was probably ancient but could not really understand it, but at the price I bought it for, was willing to buy it to study it.

The first challenge of the piece was attempting to discern just what is depicted.  And also, just what is this a fragment of?  It measures just over an inch in maximum length, 26 to 27mm.  It is more than 1/2 inch in thickness at the thickest point, 14mm, and tapers down to 4mm, about a 1/4 inch on the unbroken edge.  I was wondered if this is a fragment of a larger vessel or some other type of object. I could see the head of a youth and what looked like a dog looking through a tree like plant, with a bit of drapery and what looks like an arm with the hand grasping a branch.  I thought that perhaps the subject was Acteon looking through a tree at the bathing Artemis, but that didn't really jive with what is depicted here.  So I sent images of it to my pen pal friend Ittai Gradel in Copenhagen, who is a gem expert who has proved invaluable to me in the past in understanding a gem.  Within an hour I had a reply with an almost immediate identification of the subject.  Based on the youth, the animal, the tendrilly plant, and the hand and forearm grasping it with the end of a windblown cloak at the edge, Ittai  identified this as a depiction of the myth of King Lycurgus.

In the myth, Lycurgus was a king in Thrace, who was opposed to the worship of Dionysus and attacked one of his maenads, Ambrosia, who called out to Mother Earth who turned her into a vine.  Coiling around the king she held him captive, while Dionysus's other followers, here a satyr and panther, tormented him.  In one version of the myth, Ambrosia, now a vine, entwines around the king, trapping him and tearing him apart.  What is likely depicted here is the moment of his entrapment, the youth is a satyr with a panther, who is somewhat dog like but does have the short snout of a cat, and not the long one typical of ancient depictions of dogs.

This myth is known from a handful of late antique objects, the most famous of which is the Lycurgus Cup in the British Museum. This is a cup of dichroic glass, which appears to be a pea soup green in reflected light, and deep purply red in light that passes through it.  Its quite an arresting transformation, achieved by means that until recently, was not understood.

Above the cup in two views, the top in reflected light, looking very green, and below in transmitted light, looking very red.  The top image shows the king as he is entrapped in the coiling vine, below a Pan and panther below him, taunting the trapped king. For more information about the cup and its science go to:

Mosaic floor in a Roman Villa in Casale, photo taken by Yair Karelic.
The full scene is depicted in the mosaic above.  Lycurgus is shown nearly nude except for his boots and cloak over his shoulder, he wields a double headed ax, and is about to bring it down on the nude Ambrosia below him, but a Maenad behind him has tapped him on the shoulder and he turns about to see her raising her staff like Thrysus to strike him.  Ambrosia has already started to turn, her legs end in vines coiling around the King.  Dating to the 4th Century A.D., The Villa Romana del Casale is in Sicily, and has what is regarded as one of the largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world according to Wikipedia.

The date of the Villa and that of the Lycurgus Cup, is late, 3rd to 4th Centuries A.D., and the somewhat crude style of the gem fragment indicate that it too dates to this period.  Other than Greek vase paintings, which depict the myth differently, the Lycurgus myth is not seen until this late period, supporting the date.  The meaning or significance of the myth and why it was depicted is lost to us, and according to the great scholar Martin Henig, courtesy of  Wikipedia: "in cases such as this, we are not concerned with simple, popular paganism but with recondite knowledge. This is the sort of esoteric religion which the Emperor Julian, Symmachus, Praetextatus, Macrobius and Proclus relished. The religious thought behind these floors is probably deeper and more complex than contemporary Christianity and many of the keys to understanding it have been lost."  While Henig is speaking about mosaics in the Villa at Casale, it applies to the other mediums, such as my gem fragment.  What he is saying is that while it appears to be a straightforward illustration of a popular story, but in fact was freighted with meaning that is lost to us today.

Now that I had a handle on the subject, it became easier to see what the gem fragment depicted and to photograph it, since I now knew what to try to capture.  Below are photos taken with my new DinoLite hand held microscope which is proving to be very useful in photographing gems.

In the detail above you see the Satyr, and the head and one paw of his attendant panther beside the vines tendrils.

the detail of the other side of the fragment clearly shows the kings hand wrapped by the vine, and grasping a tendril.  The edge of his cloak can bee seen above the forearm, and the leaf on the vine does look grape like, which would be appropriate for a Dionysian themed image such as this.

What this fragment illustrates is how much can be learned even from a fragment, once you start researching it.  This gem has great scholarly interest and is a rare example from a later period of the dying art of gem engraving.  When complete, this gem must have been quite large for a gem, 3 or 4 inches across and had a domed top on which the scene was engraved.  We will never know its context, what it was intended for or set into.  But there is no question of its antiquity and its subject is now clear, giving it great interest.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ancient Roman eagles, and eagles with snakes.

Image from the official website for Pompeii and Naples
When attempting to find out the date of an object, one wants to find parallels, and from them you can deduce or support a dating for a piece. In my research I did not find the exact parallels I wanted but I did find a few other examples of sculptures featuring an eagle with a serpent. The photo above is of a fountain found at the House of the Faun in Pompeii. Here the eagle stands with his wings raised up but not fully outstretched. You can see a snake next to the eagle, sheltered in its raised wing as the eagle looks over at it. It is almost loving the way the eagle seems to have this snake protected under its wing as he looks back at it tenderly. The snake, whose head is missing, is coiled and almost standing on the coils. It is almost menacing, so one wonders what exactly is depicted; was the intent of the sculpture to show an eagle surprised by a dangerous snake which is one potential reading, or is it an eagle who has taken the snake under its wing literally. If one knew exactly what myth or image was being depicted one could tell.

As important as just finding a Roman eagle with a snake, even if not fully understanding their relationship, is the treatment of the feathers on the neck and body, which are the same. Neck feathers are smaller but similarly untidy in their arrangement as the body, sort of tousled, again nearly fur-like, although here due no doubt to the large scale and different medium, the feathers are distinct and clear, unlike on my bronze.

photo taken of an illustration in a book showing a statue of Zeus with his eagle.
Above is an image of a marble statue of Zeus with his eagle companion next to him. Again, like the marble above, the feathers of the neck are treated like those of the body, as found in nature, and their wavy appearance are almost fur-like.

Again taken from the web, a statue in the Vatican of Ganymede and the Eagle, who is Zeus in disguise. Here the feathers are more like fur again.

Another image taken of a book page with a photo of a relief of Ganymede and the eagle of Zeus. Here, even though a very poor resolution image, you can see a wavy fur-like pattern of the feathers as on my eagle.

Another photo from a book on Roman sarcophagi, here one found in Nikopolis, and again, even in this poor quality image you can see the wavy fur-like treatment of the body and neck feathers of the eagle. I would like to find other examples and get better quality photos of them, but even this small sampling supports that the Romans did depict eagles in the manner in my bronze.

However below you will see the exact iconography:

Taken from an article titled, Eagle and Serpent. A study in the Migration of Symbols, by Rudolf Witkower, published in the Journal of the Warburg Institute, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1939.

The photo is of a relief on the apex of the interior of a Triumphal Arch at Pola which is in Croatia. The eagle grasps the snake in his talons, and they look at each other in the same way as in my eagle. Here the snake is proportionately larger than in the bronze, and the low relief carving is not as well sculpted as the bronze or the other marble examples cited above. It is slightly provincial in the quality of its carving, as is found in the outlying areas of the Roman Empire. Wittkower interpreted the depiction on this arch to be about the triumph of Rome over its enemies, however, I am less sold on that idea. Again, the snake is hardly dead here, it is huge and quite dangerous looking. Its not even clear that the eagle intends to kill the snake, while he is holding the snake in his talons, he is also is looking at the snake as the snake looks at him, he is not rending the snake and dealing a death blow to it.

The Pola Arch may tell us the original purpose of the bronze and explain the holes in the wings and tail.  Perhaps they were for attachment in an architectural setting, the coffer of a ceiling or an arch or other structure. It does read very well from below. There is no other way of displaying it, unless you mount it on a stand as I did, otherwise it would either have to be hung as it was at Christie's.  Roman public buildings often had bronze architectural decoration. An infamous example is the Pantheon which was stripped of its bronze decoration by one of the Popes, which was melted down and cast by Bernini to make the Baldachinno over the altar at St. Peter's Cathedral. Survival of such bronze architectural decoration is rare, as it was pillaged to melt down for weapons, coins and the like.

I continue to look for parallels and evidence to support the eagle, and will report back here should something come up. If anyone can contribute reading this, please feel free to comment or email me with your thoughts.

The eagle; what species is it?

The eagle against black
One thing struck me in particular about the eagle, the fur-like treatment of the feathers on the neck and body of the eagle. It resembles the pelt of a bear or the mane of a lion more than the feathers of a bird. I recalled seeing such treatment of the f Roman sculptures of eagles, but was finding very few examples in my books or online. I have a pretty good visual memory, so if I think I saw it, I am sure I did, it is just a matter of finding it again. Strangely, once I started looking for Roman representations of eagles, I found very few. While we strongly associate the eagle with Imperial Rome, when looking for representations of eagles at the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, I found hardly any. In Rome I believe there are more, but I can find few illustrated in my books. I will have to make a trip to Europe to revisit Rome to find the one I remember seeing with this distinct fur-like treatment of the feathers.

Apart looking for ancient parallels the question I asked was, is this fur-like feathering based on nature?  For this Google proved invaluable as a source of images of eagles. I found that one species of eagle that does have this type of feathering on the body, the Golden Eagle. This made sense to me,  since it is the largest eagle that the Romans would have known of, and is because it is so majestic it became the symbol of the king of the Gods, Zeus.

A golden eagle on Google
In the photo a and you can see how the feathers of the neck go down to cover the body, no distinction between the neck and body. The feathers are long and tapered to a fine point, and are not stiff like wing feathers.

Golden eagle and carcass in winter
The action photo above of an eagle scavenging a winter carcass allows us to see how the feathers on the legs and body are fur-like.

The above images and others I have found, demonstrate that golden eagles have wispy long pointed feathers covering their neck and bodies down to their legs, that can look fur-like. Given the Roman and Greek interest in naturalistic depiction, this at least would seem to support the possible Roman date of this eagle. Now I needed to find other ancient Roman eagles with similar feathering of the body.

The Eagle cleaned and examined

Above is a screen grab from Christie's website showing the eagle with the shiny black patina it had when I first saw it and bought it. 

photo by Telyfoto Inc.
Above is the eagle as it now looks, after I cleaned it. I experimented with different solvents, and it was turpentine that worked to dissolve and remove the black. Amazingly, under it was a green patina, which looks like what you would see on an ancient Roman bronze. If this bronze was really 17th Century, under the black would have been bare metal. Patina is misleading when it comes to Renaissance bronzes as generally a patina is a reaction of a surface to its environment.  In the Renaissance they often applied layers of shellac and varnish with colors to achieve a satiny look to the surface.  And then other times they would apply chemicals to alter the surface inducing a chemical patina to imitate that on ancient bronzes.  But they would not have put black on top of a green patina, what would the point be?  The green would be covered by the black, they could just put the black on top of the metal and achieve the same effect, why add another process?   If however this was an ancient bronze which was discovered in pieces, the wings and tail having broken off, the reattachment with solder would have been obvious, as some areas would have patina, and others would be bare metal. By covering the whole thing in black, the eagle was made to look uniform. A 17th Century bronze is unlikely to have ever been buried, and would not have acquired the type of patina that I found under the black. However, to be sure of that the patina was the product of long burial and not chemically induced, I took the eagle to a well known conservator in Holyoke Massachusetts, Susan White.

Above is a detail of the eagle after cleaning showing the patina, which is of the varied dark and lighter green with reddish undertones that you would expect from an ancient patina. Also visible are the dents and damages to the forward edge of the wing, and you can also see where the wing was joined back to the body. The round hole was done at the time of the repairs I think.

The examination by Susan White took several steps. First was a close microscopic look at the surface to see what the patina is made of. Then she also took it to a facility that has an XRF machine, which uses x-rays to determine the exact composition of the metal. This is useful to determine if something is a pastiche; made up of disparate parts but not belonging to each other, as is possible in a piece like this. Then Susan also took small samples, etched them with acid and examined the slices under a microscope to see if there is intergranular corrosion, where the corrosion products penetrate into the crystalline structure of the metal.

The initial examination under low powered magnification, 1x-7x, revealed a varied patina layer, thin in parts and thick and compacted malachite in others. The thin areas which in places reveal the metal underneath made the piece look as if it does not have age, but the thicker compacted areas indicated an object of some age.

Due to the evidence of reattachment of the wings and tail, Susan arranged to have the piece analyzed by X-ray Flourescence, XRF, which determines the exact composition of the alloys, and would reveal wether this was a pastiche or all of a piece. Several areas were chosen to scan, one on each wing and tail, and another on the body of the eagle. The scans of the different parts confirmed that they all belonged, they were statistically identical, proving they were cast from a single batch of alloy. It also revealed that the eagle is cast not of the usual bronze alloy, which is copper tin, but instead is copper zinc, in other words, brass. The exact alloy revealed by XRF is the following:

Copper 67%
Zinc: 25%
Iron: 6-10%
Trace amounts of lead were found, no greater than 1.7% in the snake, but averaging about 0.6%.

The iron is unexpected in a modern brass alloy, but the ability to smelt pure zinc was not developed until the Renaissance. The source ores for copper and zinc also contained trace amounts of iron, which got incorporated into the alloy if you cannot refine out the pure metals. Lead was often added to copper alloys to help with the flow of the alloy during casting, so is a perfectly normal element in such an alloy.

Brass is known to have been used in antiquity and in fact, I suspect that many objects described as being of bronze are in fact different alloys, of which copper zinc is one. Some art historians have taken to substituting "coppery alloy" for bronze when describing objects, as there were different alloys used with copper. One alloy in use in very early "bronzes" is copper arsenic, something that sounds positively dangerous to us now.

The metallographic examination consisted of Susan taking three small samples from the piece, one from the back of the left wing, a second from the back of the neck of the eagle, and third from the tail. An effort was made to ensure that the samples were not close to the areas of repair, as the heat from the soldering would alter them. The samples were mounted in epoxy resin and polished very finely to reveal their crystalline structure. After etching with 1:1 ammonia, hydrogen peroxide wash to bring out the crystals, the samples were looked at under high (25x) magnification which clearly showed the massive cuprite on the surface of the sample on the left wing, and the migration of the cuprite into the sample cross section along a grain boundary.

The conclusion of the results of the metallographic analysis suggest an early date to the First Millenium A.D., which would support a Roman date. However, as the nature of science, it can only provide support but cannot prove when it was made.

While the report seemed to bear out my hunch, I still needed to find parallels, if they exist, and overcome the doubt that pervades the field. An example of this; the head of the conservation department of the Metropolitan museum stated that there are no Roman brass cast sculptures, period. I doubt very much that this is true, the Romans certainly used brass, their coins were brass often, and coins were melted down to make sculpture and visa versa. When I go through the Metropolitan Museum's collection, I see many "bronzes" that I bet are in fact brass. Below is photo taken in the study collection of the Greek and Roman wing, of what looks like a brass object.  I wonder how many of the Met's bronzes were XRF'ed or otherwise tested for their exact alloy composition. My bet is very few, so how can anyone categorically say that there are no Roman brass cast sculpture?
Above is a fitting from a chariot, with the head of medusa, cast of a bright brassy looking metal, which was striped of its patina, or never developed one. I have not had it analyzed but bet no one else has. I also would guess it is not a standard copper tin alloy, but cannot know that without testing it. I make these observations to illustrate how varied "bronzes" are from antiquity, in composition and patina.

Later posts will look at other factors in attempting to determine the age of my Eagle.

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.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Chinese Buddhist sculpture and Fakes

Dear Reader,

This will be my first post here about what has become a new passion of mine, early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture dating from the Wei to the Tang Dynasties, from about 400 to 900 A.D.. I have always admired examples when I came across them, but not knowing that much about the period and type, paid them little mind other than that. My first encounter with one of these sculptures was at Harvard, a 6th Century A.D. marble bodhisattva, see below, which I found beautiful not only for its quality of carving and elegant style, but remarkable for its preservation as it had extensive color and gilding remaining.

Standing Bodhisattva
Chinese, 6th Century A.D.
White marble with polychromy, Height: 36 1/2 inches.
Harvard Art Museums

Harvard, thanks largely to the Grenville Winthrop bequest, and more recently the Sackler gifts, has a wonderful collection of ancient Chinese art, with many fine examples of early Buddhist sculpture. But I went on for most of my life looking at, and dealing in Classical antiquities; the art of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. Over the past five years or so, I began to see beautiful early Chinese art on the market, for prices that were approachable for me, and I started to buy a few pieces. At first, when I saw the archaic jades and Buddhist sculptures, I assumed they could not be real; but over time, as I learned and looked, I began to see that these were great ancient works of art. But one problem with the field is just that, the doubt that is sowed by dealers and cognoscenti in the field, who say that most material on the market is fake. The frequently heard phrase is that the Chinese can make anything, it is their own culture and they have been copying older styles for centuries. Some go so far as to say that the historic collections in our great museums are full of fakes made for the Western market in the 19th and early 20th Century. Which of course leaves one with the question of what are you to believe, what is real, if you cannot even trust the museums where you trained your eye. However, as Chinese art was not my field, I was unaware of the extent of this attitude and a personal watershed moment occured when I visited a friend who is a dealer, who pulled out of his storeroom a small fragmentary marble Buddhist sculpture, about 8 inches tall, the torso and head of a bodhisattva, with drapery and jewels in the Tang style, perfect surfaces, and root marks and traces of encrustation. It was an incredible sculpture of extremely high quality and conviction, and he told me people were telling him it was a fake. I said I couldn't believe that, and offered to buy it, but alas, didn't have the money at that moment. About five years after that this dealer held an exhibition of Chinese Buddhist sculpture, and you began to see some Buddhist sculptures with other dealers. The scholars had changed their tune, what they were saying was fake a few years ago, they now believed in.

My first real job in New York in 1982, was working for the distinguished antiquities dealer, Mathias Komor. He had started his career in China working for an uncle in the foreign section of Peking, dealing in Chinese sculpture and antiquities. He left China during the revolution and started dealing in Classical antiquities, as it was then impossible to get art out of China. He told me, "Buy with your eyes, not your ears." This has stayed with me and served me very well. The meaning is this; look, think for yourself, and don't always believe what you read or people tell you. He pointed out that most of what he dealt in had no signatures, no labels, and you had to place them by style and use connoisseurship in judging the objects. For me, it has meant that I have been able to buy objects, often at major auction houses, that were incorrectly cataloged, as Nineteenth Century, and then prove their antiquity, reaping a nice profit from rescuing them from ignominy. So I am used to thinking for myself, and trusting my own eye.

Over the past few years I began to buy archaic Chinese jades, and have now moved into buying Buddhist sculpture. As a former friend of mine who is a major antiquities collector once said to me, "you take candy when they are handing it out." Meaning, that when great things are available, you buy them. This is the moment for early Chinese art, as for the past decade or so there has been a lot of material coming into the market, and only in 2009 did China ban the export of archeological material. The market and scholars were not unprepared for the flood of material, and it has only recently begun to be processed. Scholars, many who are Chinese, are shedding new light on the material, new archeological finds are putting them into context, and the market is starting to catch up. What this still means, though, is that the prices are a fraction of what comparable material would be in Classical antiquities or even Indian and Southeast Asian art. It is an incredible time to be looking at this field.

However, the whole issue of authenticity, while it works to my advantage at the moment by depressing the prices of what I want to buy, scares off potential collectors. For myself, I do not believe that the great historic museums are full of fakes, I do not believe that in the late 19th early 20th Centuries, the Chinese were making fake sculptures to sell to Western Collectors and museums. While there are certainly fakes being made today, their quality is low, and easily distinguished from the masterpieces I have been acquiring. (I also have scientific and scholarly reports on most of my sculptures which certify their authenticity.) However support for my point of view is found in the latest scholarship, published in recent exhibition catalogs.

The best refutation of the great museums being riddled with fakes comes in one of those catalogs, Treasures Rediscovered, Chinese Stone Sculpture from the Sackler Collections at Columbia University, published in 2008. In one of its introductory essays by Stanley Abe, From Stone to Sculpture: the Alchemy of the Modern. His essay states that the Chinese themselves were historically not interested in stone sculpture, they were interested in the inscriptions on early monuments for their historic and calligraphic interest, but they had no interest in the sculptures associated with them. A frequent practice of the Chinese was to take rubbings of the inscriptions on the stelas and other monuments, but with no recording of the sculptures on them. In the West, Abe has this to say, "Before 1905, Westerners did not think that China had produced significant works of sculpture..." In China, he points out that there were no Fine Art museums at the beginning of the 20th Century, and that the Chinese had no word for Fine Art, importing from Japan terms for art criticism. He goes on to further say, "In contrast, however to long-established types of prized aesthetic objects-- calligraphy and painting, antique bronze vessels, ancient jades, and ceramics-- sculpture was not collected or appreciated by Chinese connoisseurs." As China began to be explored by Westerners, and with the advent of photography, interest and knowledge of Chinese Buddhist sculpture began to be disseminated, and examples to be acquired by Western collectors and museums. However, even as museums began to exhibit examples of Buddhist sculptures, there was little interest by collectors in it.

A striking example of the general lack of interest in Chinese sculpture, is the story that Abe tells about the great dealer, C.T. Loo: "...Loo's Peking office acquired eight large stone statues--said to be from the Southern Xiangtangshan caves--but was unable to sell them in China. They were shipped to Paris but elicited no interest, and Loo asked his fellow Parisian dealer Charles Vignier to take a half share of the group. Photographs were circulated all over Europe, yet no buyers could be found. Finally, in 1915, Loo's photographs sparked interest in the United States..." Some were sold to Philadelphia, and other institutions here, but even so, this story repudiates the idea that there was this huge market for Chinese sculpture supporting the production of fakes. Given the chaos in China at this time, as the empire ended and the nation fell apart, collections were being sold, and new finds were being sold into the market; there was surfeit of material, there was no need to fake things.

Today is different, while there is a wealth of real material, there are fakes being made, but generally of low quality easily distinguished from the genuine objects of high quality. Further, scientific examination helps sort out the fakes. The whole issue of fakes serves dealers interests though, "only trust me, everything other people have is fake." This destructive attitude serves their short-term interests but damages the confidence of potential buyers in the market. However, I have observed that perseverance and vision eventually win the day as scholarship is now validating things that only a few short years ago were in question. Meantime, I will acquire every piece that I feel is beautiful and high quality, while they can still be had. Of course, I am a dealer, and sadly, I do have to part with incredible things, which cannot be replaced. But the pleasure of having had them in my possession, even if for a short time, brings me great joy, and enlightens me as learn through reading and studying the objects.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chinese Buddhist Sculptures; their purpose and function

Dear Reader,
Following up on the last post about Chinese Buddhist Sculpture and Fakes, I am now going into the purpose and function of these beautiful works of art.
As many of my readers are aware, but some may not be, Buddhism believes that the world is illusion and the source of suffering, that desire is the cause of pain, and to transcend the world and escape from the world is the highest good. Buddha, through meditation and his middle path, arrived at through years of different practices, attained nirvana, the state of full release from this world. Such an unworldly religion would seem to be antithetical to the creation of art, and for the first few centuries it was aniconic, with no images of the Buddha per se, his presence was represented by a footprint, the wheel of Dharma, the Bodhi Tree under which he attained enlightenment, and an empty throne. It was only in the Gandhara, which was influenced by Greece and Rome as Alexander the Great had gotten that far into India and ties developed between the two worlds, that images of the Buddha started to be created. Legend has it that the King Udayana, who was a disciple of the Buddha, after the Buddha passed into parinirvana, found his absence unbearable and commissioned the first statue of him. According to the legend all subsequent statues of the Buddha were based on that original image.

Standing Buddha
Gandhara, 3rd Century A.D.
Grey schist, Height: 38 inches.
(from my personal collection, sold in 2008)

The above image, of a Buddha I owned for a few years, and then sold, is the prototypical Gandhara Buddha. Characteristic of this style are the Western style drapery which is naturalistically rendered with the body revealed underneath it. Also typical are the un-Western proportions, dictated not by nature but by scripture, as you will read later here.
However, given the emphasis on the internal and personal experience of the follower, who through meditation was attempting to follow the Buddha into Nirvana, the role of art is hard to understand. However as Buddhism developed over time it broadened and incorporated other beliefs into it, and different schools of practice developed. The Mahayana, "Great Vehicle", made room for images, and in China, is explained best in the essay Merit-Cultivation Practices and Image Making in the Northern Dynasties, by Wendi Leigh Adamek, published in Treasures Rediscovered, Chinese Stone Sculpture from the Sackler Collections at Columbia University, in 2008. A remarkable catalog, this essay is one of the best explanations of Buddhism and the role of art in it that I have read to date.

According to Adamek:

"As noted at the outset, it is helpful to see Buddhist images in light of the complex links between faith and doctrine. From the devotional perspective, not only the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas but also the scriptures themselves functioned as manifestations of the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), with a salvational power that was accessible to all devotees. This soteriological (from Soter, savior) or salvific, function does not run counter to the Buddhist doctrines of no-self and emptiness....According to this doctrine, ....there are no individual beings....All that appears to us is an illusion....
In the Huayan school of Buddhism, this is explained through a visual analogy: it is as if the universe is a vast net with glittering jewels hung at every intersecting point. Every jewel is reflected in all other jewels, and all the jewels are reflected in each. In reality, however, there are no jewels and no net; in other words there are no beings and no time and space. .....
Ordinary beings perceive the illusory manifestations produced by the interrelation of all phenomena and believe them to be real. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, however, are those who have realized the ultimate lack of reality of these phenemena. Buddhas (fully realized) and bodhisattvas (on the path to Buddhahood) are no longer bound by appearances, and they are able to work with conventional truth in order to help other beings overcome the illusions that produce suffering....
Devotion to Buddhas and bodhisattvas and to the images that represent them elicits a response, moving the salvific figure to deploy the power of his or her merit to relieve the sufferings of the devotee. Note that according to this view of reality, both the cosmic Buddhas and the images that represent them are illusions, but they are illusions created through merit and thus have the power of "skillful means."....
The Two Truths are two perspectives on the same reality/effect. The seemingly specific and illusory nature of images and merit on the conventional level is not different from unlimited, absolute emptiness. The two levels are inseparable, but they appear to refer to each other."

This is heady stuff, think about it for a moment; if all is illusion, time and space don't exist, then the Buddha is both in the image and in his "Pure Land" at the same time, these images both truly reflect the beings represented even though they are illusions. That the enlightened ones see through the illusion of this world, and can work with it, mean that truly, when you see halos around their heads, and flames shooting around them, these beings radiate power, the power to transform the world. As fire is a transforming agent, it destroys, melts, changes what it touches, so the Buddha's presence does to the world around him. Think of the movie the Matrix, when Neo sees the matrix and can then work with it, he transcended the rules of the matrix. The Matrix is one of my favorite movies as it is one of the best popular culture representations of this Buddhist idea.

Another aspect of Buddhist belief emphasized visualizations as a way to get closer to the Buddha and enlightenment. There were specific exercises and guides to visualization meant to help the believer in this. Images were an aid in this visualization, and were created according the the scriptural descriptions of the Buddha. There were two sets of attributes, the 32 Signs of the Great Man, and 80 secondary characteristics. Not to list them all, here are few to give you an idea of the scriptural description that shaped the images of the Buddha we see here:
Level feet, long slender fingers, arched insteps, hands reaching below the knees, well retracted male organ (that is why he appears almost feminine in the body), Golden hued body, Ten-foot aura around him, and many more, but lastly, Fleshy protuberance on the crown of the head (the ushnisha).

Standing Buddha, China, Northern Wei (386-534)
Gilt bronze, Height: 55 1/4 inches
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

One of the characteristics listed is finely webbed toes and fingers, which some early sculptures show, but later that unnatural feature is dropped. If one were really to create such a figure following the enumerated features, the result would be quite strange, freakish actually. However, the artists managed to find a harmonious medium, using some but not all of the prescripted attributes, but it explains why the figures are not naturalistic, and sometimes appear awkward or even provincial to a Western eye. In the East, the artists were interested in depicting a spiritual reality, not the physical reality we all refer too. The image above of a superb gilt bronze statue at the Metropolitan Museum has the webbed hands, which are huge, on overly long arms, and very unnatural proportions. But it is beautiful and very expressive. Interesting it is dated by an inscription on the back to the year 486 A.D., which makes it a relatively early Chinese Buddhist sculpture.

In summation, while Buddhism's goal is non-being, an escape from reality, achieved through meditation and other practices, the images created were aids on the path, and can be understood in the context of the scriptures and beliefs. The early flowering of Buddhism in China from the Fifth through Eighth Centuries produced some of the worlds greatest sculpture, the equal in its majesty, to Egyptian or Khmer Cambodian sculpture with which it shares an austerity and elegance.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The subject of a gem finally identified!

Engraved banded agate, 20mm long

I have owned this gem for years; an intaglio carved of a domed banded agate, depicting an athletic young man holding a discus in his lowered left hand and an strings in his raised right. When I bought it it was unset, and I put it in a ring of my own making, with a heavy 22k gold bezel around the stone on a silver ring. Unfortunately the stone is cracked, but it is otherwise complete and quite beautiful in quality. The detail of the musculature is remarkably fine and precise for such a tiny image, and the intensity of the gaze is remarkable in how readable it is even though on such a tiny scale. This is a masterpiece of the glyptik arts, but what exactly are we looking at? What is this beautiful young man doing, and is this ancient or a Neo-Classical gem inspired by antiquity?

The impression taken with Sculpey

The first bit of information I got was when researching for parallels, I found an almost exact one in Lippold, Gemmen und Kameen des Altertums et der Neuzeit, published by Julius Hoffman Verlag, Stuttgart, 1920, illustrated with a photo of the impression, described as: "Athlet, Diskos in der Rechten, Riemen in der Linken, Romisch. Petersburg. A.G. XLIV, 30"

illustration of impression in Lippold, plate LV, number 14

So the gem in Lippold's book, which he dates as Roman following his citation of Furtwangler's Die Antiken Gemmen, is almost exactly like mine, so much so that for awhile I was wondering if mine was not the one in Lippold. But of course in Lippold the gem illustrated is said to be in St. Petersburg, which would mean in the collection of the Hermitage, which remains intact as far as I know.

A year or so after buying this gem, I was lucky enough to handle a collection of rings from David Daniels, including the one on the xerox below, which I took from the inventory at the time I had the group on consignment.

Xerox of inventory page for the garnet ring.

While hard to see, I think you can tell that the image is again, almost identical. This is unquestionably ancient as it is in its original massive and very beautiful gold ring. So far two close parallels, both accepted as ancient and hard to distinguish from mine. However for years I left it at that, put the ring in my safe and didn't think much about it. I didn't want to wear it, as the raised dome makes it more vulnerable and the crack made it even more so. However, inspired by some recent purchases of gems at the Miami Beach Antiques show, I revisited the gem.

A word about Gem collecting in the 18th into the 19th Century. Those of my readers unfamiliar with the world of engraved gems may wonder at the dim photographs of impressions from old books and the uncertainty as to dating and wonder what is this all about. The first thing to know is that gems were one of the most highly regarded and emulated of the ancient arts. There are several reasons for this, their survival in relatively high numbers and their reuse as embellishments for state and religious jewelry and objets d'arts. Some gems may never have been buried, as when the barbarians sacked Rome on multiple times, one of the targets was the treasury of the Capitoline Temples, which had a huge gem collection given to it by various benefactors over the Centuries. Small, of durable materials and highly portable, they were dispersed across Europe. When I went to Basel and visited the Cathedral Museum there, I was struck by seeing ancient gems set in reliquaries from the 10th to 14th Centuries, sometimes in very odd an inappropriate ways. For example I was surprised to see a gilt silver relief of the Virgin Mary where the face was a Roman agate cameo of none other than the Gorgon herself, Medusa. How wrong is that, the woman who can turn men to stone at a glimpse of her, on the body of the most benevolent of all female Christian figures? I suspect that the medieval artisans simply saw a female face, and recognized its age and preciousness, but not the subject since the Renaissance was centuries away, and simply put it where it seemed to fit. Personally, I love seeing that kind of reuse, since it in fact preserved many ancient pieces that who knows what would have become of them if they weren't highly regarded.

By the Renaissance though, when scholars were re-discovering the ancient texts and looking afresh at ancient art, gems were highly regarded and sought after. One reason for this is that alone of all the arts, gems survive complete and as they were intended, if devoid of their original settings. In other words you see complete scenes and figures, unlike the usually fragmentary survival of larger sculptures and architectural remains. And scholarship of them could be easily disseminated, they lent themselves to line drawings that could be turned into engravings, and you could take impressions of them, make casts of them, and once the skills of the artisans progressed, make new ones. In the Renaissance copying ancient gems was not their purpose, the artists of the day were interested in making art inspired by antiquity but they believed they could improve upon it so did their own thing with it. But by the 18th Century, with the wealth of the aristocracy pursuing everything ancient, and the taste being informed by the new archeological discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the gem engravers got very skilled at copying the style of the antique and making new gems inspired by the antique that fooled the people of the day.

Information was widely disseminated by the use of plaster casts of impressions and glass casts of the gems. A Scotsman James Tassie (1735-1799) developed a way to make very sharp detailed casts in colored glass and eventually developed a catalogue of of 15,000 of them, which only a very few of the wealthiest collectors bought in its entirety, Catherine the Great being one of them. The V&A is one of the few places with the complete impressions of the entire body, and Oxford got permission to take photos of the complete set, and it is all online now at the Beazley Archives along with the complete scan of the Raspe catalogue.

The most notorious case of modern gems being passed off as ancient was the case of the collection of Prince Stanlislas Poniatowski (1754-1833), a Polish prince, who settled in Rome and built up a large collection of gems starting with a small collection he had inherited from his uncle the King of Poland. The prince restricted access to the collection and it built up a mythic reputation. He published a catalog of it in 1830, and after his death it was sold at Christies in London in 1839, with collectors paying vast sums to acquire the gems. Within a few years though, doubts that had been percolating for years finally came to a head, when scholars could finally examine the gems. It became clear that the Prince had commissioned the 2600 gems from the foremost artists of his day, creating glyptich illustrations of Ovid, the myths of Hercules, and portraits of almost every ancient mythical or historic personage. Based on no ancient or contemporary works of art, these were original creations, if they were deceptively presented. By the mid-19th Century when the scandal had played its course, the mania for gems was essentially over, and gem carving declined in quantity and quality.

Burned by being duped by Poniatowski, scholars became ever more skeptical and this attitude has persisted to this day. One good thing however is that the "modern" gems were highly regarded as works of art on their own and many books on gem engraving such as Lippold and the Tassie impressions have it all, the ancient and the modern. This allows for one to educate ones eye, and chance upon cases where scholars may have been too conservative and put into the modern category a possible ancient piece or visa versa.

This brings me back to my athlete gem. Now re-interested in gems I started to research anew. One thing that changed since I last was researching this gem is the web, and the Beazley Archives from Oxford, which has done my world a great service by putting several entire catalogs of gems and impressions on the web. And then there is Google, which is busy digitizing books, many very obscure, which once could only be gotten in a few places in the world. I found the motif again in the Beazley Archives, mentioned before, see below:

Here is the screen grab of the photos that Oxford took of the Tassie impressions in the V&A. The number corresponds to their entries in the catalog by Erich Raspe, printed in 1791 in both English and French. The entry for the gems above is below:

I at first assumed that Number 7963 is the one in Lippold, and here, while no collection is given for it, the material is, Chalcedony. But since Lippold was early 20th Century, it may not be the same gem, as each is so similar that in these not so great images taken of impressions, are very hard to judge precisely. One point of difference is the position of the upraised arm, even in the dark and blurry images, they do appear to be held at a slightly different angle so they may not be the same gems. The second example, number 7964, is damaged but while a little different in the direction of the gaze of the athlete, very similar in pose and physique. Oddly enough, from a totally random source, I purchased a glass cast of number 7964, and because at first glance it appeared crude to me, I just stuck in on a shelf. However its closeness to the gem I put in a ring I remembered and brought it down to look at. It is much better than I remembered, with the musculature well rendered, and readable. There is a little bubble though in the face, and other tiny flaws resulting from its being a cast, see below:

Pretty remarkable actually, to have stumbled across this from a small dealer at some antique fair, although to be honest, I don't remember who or where now it was so long ago. It is irrefutably of Raspe's number 7964, the damage and pose are identical, and that gem has long been accepted as being ancient.

However, the subject of the gem remained unknown, it has been variously described as, athlete with reins, a discobolus, even a quoit player. Here enters a new friend, a pen pal really since our relationship has to date been exclusively through email correspondence, whose name is Ittai Gradel and who is known from a book he wrote a book on Emperor worship among the Romans. He first contacted me about the Athena Cameo, and I sent him images of another gem, the Hostilianus, and he was enormously helpful in figuring out what it was and who it represented, see my post about it: story of a gem...
Given Ittai's interest and knowledge of gems, and at his request, I sent him a photo of the Athlete. He was enthusiastic in his response to it, but of course the questions are, what is this athlete doing, i.e. what is the subject, and also is this ancient. Based on style and closeness to accepted ancient examples, we both agreed it is likely to be ancient. Ittai then turned his attention to the subject and in a triumphant email to me wrote this:

So your athlete is a *pentathlete* who has just thrown the javelin, and is now about to throw the discus. The reins/strap/thong he holds is indeed what I mentioned before, connected with javelin throw - e. g. described here (from wikipedia s. v. javelin throw):
'The one major difference between the javelin of the ancient games and the javelin of more modern times is a leather thong, called an ankyle that was wound around the middle of the shaft. Athletes would hold the javelin by the thong and when the javelin released this thong unwound giving the javelin a spiraled flight.'
(The Ancient Olympic Games by Judith Swaddling is the obvious ref here for further study)
Add to this that the pentathlete was in fact considered the ideal type of athlete (again from the excellent perseus site given above):
'Aristotle describes a young man's ultimate physical beauty: "a body capable of enduring all efforts, either of the racecourse or of bodily strength...This is why the athletes in the pentathlon are most beautiful." (Aristotle,Rhetoric 1361b)'

This explains the focus of the gaze of the young man, he has just thrown his javelin and has the discus for his next feat. It also explains the extraordinary physique of this athlete, he is meant to be so as a pentathlete, the ultimate athlete. I think Ittai is correct and he has figured out something no one else has in over two hundred years. Remarkable bit of sleuthing and insight on his part.

You can see why engraved gems are so engaging, they are beautiful, and when you start looking at them and researching them, offer a remarkable depth of knowledge to be acquired. And because they are fairly well documented often, you can find parallels, and in earlier catalogs sometimes even their history. In our time they have been neglected which means you can make discoveries, not only buying things that are unrecognized for what they are, but making new discoveries about them as Ittai did with the Pentathlete.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Springfield Museums again

Last week I found myself heading to my conservator in Holyoke to pick up a piece, and decided to also pay a quick visit to the Springfield Museums, as I really enjoy them. This time I made it to the Springfield History museum, which turned out to be quite a treat.

Widow Seated with Her Dogs, 1640
attributed to Frans Luycx, Flemish, 1604-1668

For some reason this dour picture captured my attention. Beautifully painted the elderly lady is enshrouded with luxurious black satins, with two adorable dogs beside her, one of which reaches up to sniff her hand. This is a great portrait painting, which manages to be both intimidating and somehow sympathetic. At first formidable in appearance upon a closer look, the lady is seemingly almost approachable. The dogs betray her humanity.

Detail of the Portrait of a Widow

While not pretty, and pretty scary still, I think I detect the hint of a smile on her lips. Maybe she is not so mean really.

The real treat this trip though, because the last times I have gone I have not gone into it, was the History part of the museums. I had no idea that Springfield was such a major center of industry, the made cars, motorcycles, guns, Friendly's started there, the list goes on. Below are a few highlights of the automobile portion.

1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom I
made in Springfield MA

This beautiful Rolls Royce was one of the few made in this country, when Rolls Royce, recognizing the market in the US, located their production in Springfield MA. The depression finished it off, they last just about a decade making cars there. This Phantom belonged to a local businessman who was a major patron of the museums, M. Allen Swift. He owned the car for 77 years, the longest of any owner in Rolls-Royce's history, and took care of it himself, it reportedly still runs like new.

1928 Pierce Arrow, Brougham 81 Opera

This beautiful car is another star of the museum, purchased in Springfield in 1928. The label states that it is one of Americas most original cars with only 2763 miles on its odometer. That is very cool, this car never needed to be restored, since it has so little wear, and was always maintained.

The Springfield Museums are definitely worth a visit, there is a lot there to see, across a range of fields. You can expect more posts on it from me!