“You can feel the combination of strength, grace and elegance,” says Laetitia Delaloye, a specialist in antiquities at Christie’s. The object of her veneration is a statue of a woman dating to the second half of the third millennium BC – a period known as the Age of the Pyramids. Standing 71 cm tall, her elongated limbs and “sinuous form” have been carved from deep-brown-hued wood that owes the “miracle” of its preservation to the arid Egyptian desert. She has “such presence”, says Delaloye. “People in ancient Egypt wanted to remain eternal… That this 4,000-year-old statue is with us now, testifies to the fact that they achieved what they set out to do.”
Valued at between £250,000 and £350,000, the statue was given pride of place at Christie’s sale of antiquities in London on Wednesday, alongside Roman ring stones and Greek vases. Judging by the success of similar recent sales, the Christie’s auction had every chance of doing well. At the end of last month, a sale of 116 items covering the ancient world fetched £3,910,125 at rivals Sotheby’s in London. The most expensive item that afternoon was a rare Roman marble head of the Trojan hero, Ganymede, from the first century AD. It had been expected to make between £250,000 and £350,000, but ended up selling for £429,000, including the buyer’s premium.
Other items went for even more surprising sums. A south Arabian funerary stele depicting a priestess or goddess emerging from the tableau beneath nine ibex heads had been valued at up to £50,000. On the day, the stone monument, carved in high relief, ended up going for £339,000. A Sixth Dynasty ancient Egyptian calcite offering table, dated to 2360-2195 BC, made 27 times its high estimate of £12,000, selling for £321,000 in total.
The third of the big three auction houses was also getting in on the act. The day before the Sotheby’s sale, a “finely painted” Attic amphora, depicting the Greek hero Herakles slaying the Nemean lion (the first of his 12 labours) went under the hammer at Bonhams in London. Created by “one of the most important and influential groups of Attic painters of the sixth century BC” it was “surely a prestige piece from the moment of manufacture”, says Bonhams head of antiquities, Francesca Hickin. Its sale price of £68,750 came in just below its £70,000 upper estimate – proof that style never goes out of fashion.
Collecting antiquities can be controversial, as the recent case of Australian Joan Howard shows. In an interview with The West Australian newspaper last month, the 95-year-old, dubbed “Indiana Joan” by the media, revealed her illicit collection of ancient artefacts amassed in the 1960s and 1970s when she accompanied her husband, a UN diplomat, to the Middle East. While there, she joined archaeological digs as a volunteer. “It was all good fun. Dirty work, of course,” she told the paper. “But as it turned out, very, very rewarding.”
The collection includes Neolithic axe heads, ancient Egyptian jewellery and the mask of a mummy she posed with for the interview. Explaining how the collection hadn’t come to light earlier, she said, “You don’t go around saying you’ve been in a tomb”. While her reported intention was to secure the future of the collection, the revelations have caused a diplomatic incident, The Times reports. Both the Australian and Egyptian foreign ministries are investigating how the haul, valued at around £600,000, came to be in Australia.
Another suspected case of looting arose in October when The Guardian reported on “compelling evidence” it had seen that suggested at least one ancient Greek vase with links to convicted dealer Gianfranco Becchina, and which had appeared for sale at that month’s London Frieze Masters art fair, had been stolen from Athens in the 1970s. “Numerous objects from Becchina’s former dealings are believed to still be in the ancient art market, and identification usually results in their surrender and repatriation”, notes the paper.
The largest round diamond to appear at auction was set to go under the hammer this week at Sotheby’s in New York. Weighing 110.92 carats, the gem with a faint brown tint was expected to fetch between $4.2m and $6.2m as part of the auction house’s Magnificent Jewels sale.
A 709-carat uncut diamond from Sierra Leone (pictured) was bought by Laurence Graff, chairman of jewellers Graff Diamonds, for $6.5m in New York on Monday. The seller of the “Peace Diamond”, the Sierra Leone government, said it would use half of the money to improve conditions in the village of Koryardu, where it was found. Yet, the sale, handled free of charge by dealers Rapaport Group, was tinged with disappointment – the government had rejected a $7.8m offer at a prior auction.