Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Palmyra in the news again

Earlier this December, various media outlets reported that ISIS had retaken Palmyra. Other than a general expression of concern, no details were reported.  Clearly this is a terrible thing for those who care about art, and our common cultural history.  Here is a link to the article from the 12th of December:
The Art Newspaper December 12, 2016

The New York Times reported this as well, and a few days later, a strange small piece relating how the US destroyed 14 tanks left behind by the Syrian army when the ISIS retook Palmyra:

NY Times, US destroys tanks near Palmyra

So the brief hope kindled when Palmyra was liberated from ISIS, has been crushed.  Not only did the Syrian army lose Palmyra in the first place, they couldn't hold it, and their weapons were taken.  The incompetence and impotence of the Syrian army has been proven once again.  The U.S. bombed the tanks to keep them from being used against our allies in the area. 

Why does this matter, and why am I writing about this?

There has been a great deal of talk from the U.S. government blaming the antiquities trade for funding ISIS. This position dovetails nicely with the cultural balkanists, archeologists and scholars in the field, who feel that source nations should retain every scrap of antiquity found in their borders, irregardless of their ability to preserve or study them.  As I have reported in an earlier blog post here:

Conflict Antiquity symposium at the Metropolitan Museum

Not only were the government officials from Homeland security blaming the antiquity market for funding ISIS, but pieces they claimed to have come from there were being repatriated to Syria and Iraq. So states that have failed to protect their citizens and cannot even maintain their territorial integrity are somehow to be trusted with ancient works of art that their own inability to govern had permitted to be stolen in the first place?  If one is concerned about the fate of these works of art, this seems wrong headed, if noble in intent. 

I am not going to rehash what I said in the earlier blog post, but clearly ISIS is a new kind of threat to culture, one that the West is unable to deal with, both militarily and policy wise.  We have no effective strategy to stop ISIS and its cultural destruction.  Rather than admit how powerless we are, the U.S. seems to feel that condemning the market and seizing objects is going to show they are doing something to protect Syria's cultural patrimony. Instead, the U.S. is endangering it again, by showing a complete lack of concern for the objects they do seize. 

Clearly the cultural legacy of this part of the world, at least in Syria and Iraq are in danger.  We need a different attitude and a more realistic nuanced approach to the market and the pieces that make it out. During the cultural destruction in Tibet by the Chinese in the 1950's, the Dalai Lama said we should treat the art objects as refugees and give them safe shelter. Why aren't we thinking the same way about art from other conflict regions?

I do not condone the illegal trade in antiquities but the alternative is not to condemn that art market completely. The rational and right thing to do would be for nations to allow for a legal trade in antiquities that can be controlled. However, we are talking about a war zone with a dysfunctional government with Syria and Iraq. Perhaps we should encourage the trade, as at least those pieces that make it out have a better chance of surviving than those left behind! I lump Iraq in with Syria as it seems to be only marginally better off at the moment. I expect Iraq to fall to ISIS or another form of extremism or schismatic civil war before too long.

I don't know what the answer is, but I do know the danger to the cultural patrimony in this area is not the antiquity market, it is war, chaos, poverty, and ISIS.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Stela re-appears in Paris

Limestone Stela of a Buddha, China, Eastern Wei 534 - 550 A.D.

This stela was in a Stotheby's New York sale titled, "Images of Enlightenment: Devotional works of Art & Paintings", held September 16, 2015, lot 422.  It failed to sell, which was shocking to me as I posted here: http://tomswope.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-power-of-negativity.html

It has reappeared on the market however. I was just in Paris, for a tribal and Asian art fair held in early September the Parcours des Mondes, Paris.  One of the best dealers in Asian art in Paris, participated in the fair, Jacques Barrere, who was featuring some very good early Chinese Buddhist sculptures. Later that same week, his gallery was also exhibiting in the huge Paris Biennale . The star of his offering at the Biennale was the same stela that failed to sell at Sotheby's.   Sources who were at the Sotheby's sale in New York where the stela had failed to sell, told me that the Chinese dealers were telling anyone who was willing to listen that the sculptures in the sale were fake, and now the star piece reappears at one of the best dealers of the material in the world.  If I were the consignor to the Sotheby's sale I would be very upset that a conspiracy of dealers had sabotaged the sale of the piece, only to have it reappear as a featured object at the worlds top antiques fair.  I feel vindicated in that the market has confirmed what I always knew, that the piece is authentic, but it illustrates the power of rumor and innuendo to damage the reputation of a piece.  As my mentor Matthias Komor said, "believe your eyes, not your ears" when judging an object.  In this case, those who listened to the naysayers would have been misdirected.  Perhaps Jacques Barrere was smart enough to buy the stela after the sale from Sotheby's when it failed to sell at auction.  I doubt, or don't want to believe, that he conspired to undermine the auction to scoop up the piece at a discount.  However it ended up in his hands, it is being treated with the respect that it deserves, which makes me happy.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Sui Dynasty Buddha Head

Head of a Buddha, China, late 6th Century A.D.

3/4 side view of the head above

Side view of the head above

I just acquired a large head of a Buddha, and wanted to share with my readers how I looked at it and came up the with dating through comparisons to established parallels. Pictured above, it is a life sized head at 12 1/2 inches high, carved of a dark grey limestone shot through with white veins, and retains traces of its original gold leaf and some paint, particularly the red on the lips.  It has a great archeological surface that has not been over cleaned.

While at first glance it looks like all the other Buddha heads that one sees, this has certain stylistic features that help to date it rather precisely.  Let us start with the ushnisha, the cranial lump that is a mark of the Buddha. Here the ushnisha is distinctly marked as a separate cranial node but it is a low and wide unlike the high narrow high ushnisha seen in the earlier Wei Dynasty, or the merging cone head of the immediately preceding Northern Qi Dynasty.  The hair itself is rendered as a dense series of finely carved snail shell curls covering the hair area and ushnisha evenly.

It is in the eyes that we get the clearest dating criteria however.  The eyebrows are even clear and incised arches, and the eyelids are quite protuberant and form an even elongated narrow D shape on its side. Again, the preceding Northern Qi style had very curvy shaped eyes, more reflective of the Gupta prototypes the Buddha image came from.  The nose is rather wide and flat, and the mouth has curved lips in a slight smile, but not quite the cupid bow of the Northern Qi period.  The overall proportions of the head are rather squat and heavy, strong and wide.  Overall, however the face is not so Chinese in look, as it becomes in the later Tang dynasty, it is more classical like the preceding period.

When I first saw this head, I was immediately reminded strongly of a head that I admired when I went to the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art, see below.

Head of a Buddha, Rhode Island School of Design Museum
Side view of RISD Museum Buddha head

This Buddha head is also life size or just a little over life size, carved of an even dark grey limestone, with a clear but not high ushnisha, very similar to the one above, and the same long narrow D shaped eyes and wide flattish nose and slightly smiling mouth.  On this head the hair is rendered as a series of small bumps a common variation in Chinese art from the snail shell curls of the Gupta prototype.

Another piece that came to mind is a large standing Bodhisattva in the Baltimore Museum of Art, see below:

Statue of a Bodhisattva, Baltimore Museum of Art

The statue of a Bodhisattva above is actually quite large, over life sized, standing at 8 feet tall or so, and displayed on a high base so I could not get a photo at eye level of the head.  The body's proportions have the slender elegant form of early Chinese Buddhist sculptures, and the head has features that place it at the end of this period, just before the transformation that occurs in  the Tang Dynasty.

Detail of head of Bodhisattva in Baltimore

Side view of the head of Bodhisattva in Baltimore
 Another very good parallel is found closer to home though, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a standing Bodhisattva, dated to the Sui Dynasty, late 6th to early 7th Century A.D.

Standing Bodhisattva, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
Detail of head of Met Museum Bodhisattva

view from 3/4 side of Met Museum Bodhisattva
This parallel is quite close to my new Buddha head. The nose is wide and relatively flat, the eyes are simple elongated D shapes with strong projecting upper eyelids, and clear arched eyebrows.  The proportions of the head are also quite close to my head.

Another parallel is a large spectacular standing Bodhisattva in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which I have known for many years.

Standing Bodhisattva, Museum of Fine Arts Boston
This statue, complete with its lotus base guarded by lions, stands over 8 feet tall, it is quite large.  Very hard to photograph again, at least to get a detail of the head, which is what we are focused on today.

Head of the Bodhisattva in the MFA Boston

Side view of the head of the Bodhisattva in the MFA Boston
Stylistically, the head of this large Bodhisattva in Boston shares many similarities with my new Buddha head.  The same wide proportions, flat wide nose, projecting eyelids and arched brows, and similar mouth.  This statue is dated on the label to the Sui Dynasty.

While not every piece has such readily found comparables to use as parallels, this is how one dates a piece.  With this Buddha head, we can be confident of its dating within a decade, which is remarkable given its great age.  However this was a period of great creative and political flux in China, and styles advanced and changed rapidly allowing for a fairly precise dating. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Asia Week 2016

I wish I could do one of my posts on highlights seen during Asia Week, but this year the event has been destroyed by the actions of the US government misguided war on culture.

I came to go to Asia Week to see the different exhibitions on Wednesday, and one of my first stops was to Gallery Vallois at 67th and Madison, where Dalton Somare was exhibiting.  He is a dealer I featured last year because of the extraordinary pieces he showed. This year, I found the doors shut and locked and we were not allowed in, the owner answered the door to say they were rearranging and to come back another day. I at first thought it a thin pretext to keep people away while he had an important client in and I thought it was rude and strange behavior for a public event such as Asia Week. Only at the end of the day did I learn that instead, the gallery had been raided by US marshals who confiscated a major sculpture they claim had been smuggled from Afghanistan. 

Homeland Security officers removing a sculpture from a New York Gallery 


 Above is a link the the article in the New York Times about the raid. Homeland Security also raided Christie's, taking two sculptures from their sale, and also raided another dealer, Nancy Wiener, from whom they took several items.

While in theory the idea of looted antiquities is abhorrent, in the age of Islamic extremism and civil wars, in which cultural destruction has become a regular event, we need to rethink our approach to the antiquities trade.  During the cultural cleansing of Tibet when China was destroying the Buddhist monasteries, the Dalai Lama declared that we should see the objects smuggled out of Tibet as "refugees".  I think we should view objects from the conflict torn regions of the world as rescues facing probably destruction.  Ideally, we should not encourage looting, but we do not live in an ideal world, and Islamic fundamentalists are intent in erasing the culture and artifacts of the regions in their control.  We should have learned something from the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and now we have ISIS blowing up Nimrud, and Palmyra.  But we have learned nothing.  Rather the US government has taken an extreme position against the antiquities trade.  I wonder if it is to compensate for their ineptitude and impotence in stopping the violence and destruction where it is taking place.  We have completely screwed up, through our invasions, Iraq, and now Syria as collateral damage, and Afghanistan.

I cannot speak to the history of the sculpture being carted from Dalton Somare, where it came from and how it got to the market.  It is of a type I'm not familiar with, it is quite exceptional. I can tell you however with certainty that it is a great work of art, whose future is quite insecure if it goes back to Afghanistan.  I can also tell you that the dealer who owned it did not loot it himself, and I am sure bought it on good faith for the great work of art that it is.  Now, it is likely to be returned to the war torn country from where it came, to be lost to scholarship and humanity and likely destroyed.  And apparently, that suits the extremists at Homeland Security just fine.

For those who love art and the history that it teaches us about our common humanity, something must be done to stop the US government and change it's approach.  This heavy handed manner will only drive the market underground, where it cannot be monitored, and does nothing to discourage destruction.  Rather we as a nation should be focused on stopping the violence and the extremists that are responsible for the looting and cultural destruction taking place in the countries where it is taking place, not here.  Instead the US is prosecuting law abiding art dealers which does nothing to further the stated aim of preserving cultural heritage.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Another Poniatowski Gem

Bulgari Necklace set with a carnelian intaglio

I  recently returned from Florida, where I went to the big Miami Beach Antiques Show, which bills itself as the worlds largest indoor antique show, and it is big. I’ve been going for a few years now, I actually exhibited a few years ago but found my time was better spent as a buyer, rather than trying to sell there.  Early on, now more than 20 years ago, I went there with a friend, and discovered a Bulgari necklace set with an important Roman cameo portrait bust of Tiberius, which I was able to sell to the British Museum. So ever after, I’m on the look out for unrecognized ancient gems set in modern settings, or old ones for that matter.  The fair has grown if anything since years ago, they have added a whole jewelry annex with another several dozen dealers displaying.  This year, after having done the main rooms for several days I finally made it into the annex and there I found this necklace, set with an swivel set engraved carnelian gem.  I could tell at a glance it was something of interest to me. 

It is a Bulgari necklace of 1980’s vintage, emblematic of the time. A heavy gold chain that weighs a lot, has suspended from it in a swivel setting an engraved gem, with a small cabochon sapphire suspended from it.  The normal Bulgari necklace of this type has an ancient Greek or Roman coin, which would be bronze, silver or much more rarely gold. Generally the coins are of middling quality, it was more about the idea of an ancient coin and the flashy heavy gold chain necklace it was suspended from. It was a type which could almost appear tacky but was worn by high New York Society or European women.  I’m sure you’ve all seen the type, Bulgari or not, there were many imitators of this type.  However this necklace has suspended from it a gem of another order of quality.

Of course I’m always hoping to discover another ancient glyptik masterpiece that I can research and sell well.  When I was able to more closely look at this gem, it was apparent that while this is no ancient gem, it is still of enormous interest, it is a Poniatowski gem!  

Carnelian engraved gem depicting the Apotheosis of Hercules
Several things struck me looking at the gem; it is large for an engraved gem, over an inch across, beautifully carved, has a slightly worn surface, with a tiny but clear Greek signature.  All of these things are characteristic of Poniatowski gems.  But I couldn’t identify the subject, which has a muscular bearded man riding a large eagle with outspread wings.  The first assumption is that it might be Zeus on his eagle, although Zeus is the eagle, he doesn’t ride it, at least not that I’ve ever seen.  However, a few minutes back in my hotel room online was all it took to find the exact reference, thanks to the ongoing Oxford project on their Beazley Archives.  As referenced before on my blog, Oxford is attempting to recreate digitally the Poniatowski collection that was dispersed in 1839.  I have rediscovered a few so far myself, and blogged about them here.  This would be my fifth rediscovery and the sixth Poniatowski that I currently own.  Online I found the gem once I put eagle in the search box. See below:

screen grab from the Beazley Archive website
-->The subject is totally unexpected, “The Apotheosis of Hercules, who is seated upon an eagle, and bearing a figure of Victory”.  The gem was listed in Poniatowski's catalog of his collection, Catalogue des pierres graves antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanlislas Poniatowski, 1830 or 1833, II.378, and sold at Christie's sale in 1839, lot number 420.  The subject as depicted here does not exist in antiquity. Certainly the apotheosis of Hercules was depicted, but he is generally seen in the company of the Gods,  to indicate his divinity, but never seated on an eagle, nor is anyone else in Greek art.  The closest one comes to anyone born aloft by an eagle, is the found in the depiction of the abduction of Ganymede, where the eagle takes the boy in his claws and carries him up to Mt. Olympus.

Ganymede and the eagle earrings, gold,  Greek 4th Century B.C., Metropolitan Museum, NY
In Roman art however, Emperors are sometimes depicted riding on the back of an eagle, in their apotheosis.  The most famous example of that is in the center of the interior of the Arch of Titus, had has Titus on the back of the eagle seen from below, where the viewer stands.  

Detail from the Arch of Titus, Rome, late 1st Century A.D.
--> In the relief from the Arch of Titus, which is somewhat damaged, you only see the head and shoulders of the Emporer behind the spread winged eagle who bears him aloft to the heavens.  He is not sitting astride the eagle as Hercules in this gem.

The Apotheosis of emperors and members of the imperial family is also depicted on gems, and on some famous cameos, particularly the one now in the Biblioteque National in Paris, see below a photo I took when I was there last. There Germanicus is seated across the back of the eagle, as if in a chair with one foot appearing under a wing.  Rather improbable, but the message is conveyed effectively.  

Apotheosis of an Germanicus, agate cameo, Biblioteque National Paris
For depictions of the subject of the Apotheosis of Hercules more contemporary to that of my engraved gem, a famous example is that found in Versailles in the Hercules room on the ceiling by Francois Le Moyne in 1736.  There Hercules is standing in a chariot, born aloft into the clouds to join the Gods above. No eagle is apparent, and he certainly isn’t riding one. 

detail of Apotheosis of Hercules, by Le Moyne, Versailles

I cannot recall or find a similar depiction of the Apotheosis of Hercules from the period contemporaneous with this gem.  If anyone knows of one, or comes across this subject, do let me know.

What this search for sources for this gem reinforces for me is the originality of the Poniatowski gems. Even if the intent was to deceive people into thinking they were ancient, the are real works of art worthy of appreciation in their own right.