Sunday, March 22, 2015

A story of two Busts in the Metropolitan Museum

I want to start addressing in my posts, one of the central issues in dealing with ancient objects, that is authenticity, and how what role it plays in the market.  To start, I will tell the story of two exceptional Roman portrait busts, now proudly on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bust of Matidia the Younger, sister of Sabina

Bust of Sabina

These wonderful portraits busts date to the reign of Hadrian, ca 122 - 128 A.D., are complete, including their socle bases, and in superb condition. They do however have a heavy dark encrustation that has proven difficult and potentially damaging to remove, and so has been left on. You can see on the left cheek of Matidia where an attempt was made to scrape it off, and the attempt seems to have been abandoned when it was clear that it was damaging the ancient surface underneath.  Heavy encrustation notwithstanding, these are beautiful sculptures of the highest quality attainable in the Roman period, or any time.  The surfaces that are exposed are gorgeous, with their original soft polish and finish preserved.  I have always admired these busts, and I have known them for decades.

It is nice when ones advanced age becomes an asset, and in this case, it is. I have been involved in the antiquities world long enough to have seen these busts sold twice, and on view at the Metropolitan Museum twice.  The first time was in 1983, at Sotheby's New York, lots 121 and 123. Listed as "property of various owners", they both sold for $154,000., which includes the buyers commission.  At the time, that was a fairly high price, but not outrageously so.  Their provenance was very mysterious, it was rumored amongst the dealers that they came from an unnamed Mexican collection.  Somewhat hard to believe, as their quality and condition would have merited attention from the scholarly world had they been at all publicly known of.  However apparently they weren't, popping up at Sotheby's New York for sale.

Sotheby's June 10&11, 1983 catalog page

Sotheby's June 10&11, 1983 catalog page

 They were purportedly purchased by Basia Johnson, who was collecting mostly old masters, but also some antiquities.  However it was rumored that she never took delivery of the busts, because the dealers who she was buying antiquities from, Robin Symes and Christo Michaelides told her they were fakes. When told this I was incredulous, everything about these busts spoke of their authenticity, their beauty, the perfect ancient style they are carved in, and their condition. While the encrustation was marring, it seemed incontrovertible evidence of their antiquity to me, this type of patina take millennia to form. It was also hard to understand why Robin Symes would damn them, except for they didn't come from him, and he didn't want Basia Johnson purchasing from anywhere but his gallery.  Even at auction evidently. Fortunately, Robin's damning of them didn't carry weight with the Metropolitan Museum, who put them on exhibit, for several years from 1984 to 1989.

A little more than decade after the first sale, the portrait busts came up again at Sotheby's New York, where Robin Symes condemnation apparently meant little.  This was in the December 14th, 1994 New York sale, lots 90 and 91.

December 14, 1994 Sotheby's sale catalog page

December 14, 1994 Sotheby's sale catalog page

This time the busts sold for $290,000., each, hammer price, so the buyers premium would have been added to that. I was in the room, and thus got only the hammer price at the time they sold.  Then, about a year later, they re-appeared on view at the Metropolitan Museum of art, on loan this time from the Dubroff family.  Mr. Dubroff has been purchasing antiquities, only from auction, and loaning pieces to museums. There are a number of his pieces currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, these being two of his best pieces. 

The point of this tale is a cautionary one about how questions of authenticity are used by dealers to sabotage other dealers, and control collectors. There can really be no real question about these busts antiquity, they were raised simply to undercut a buyer's willingness to buy from someone, anyone else, but them.  This is more frequent than one would like to believe and should make one skeptical when you hear a dealer talking about an object being fake that is beautiful and otherwise seems right.

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