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Roman athlete under-performs but demand is strong
The New York antiquities sales held on 9 December at Sotheby’s and 11 December at Christie’s, where new records were set for ancient jewellery, showed that the US market is as strong as ever. Both sales drew crowds of interested buyers, including US and European dealers, private collectors and a number of curators from US museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the J.P. Morgan Library, and the Art Institute of Chicago. However, these curators sat on their hands when it came to the week’s highlight, the monumental Roman bronze, which sold for much less than expected.

Sotheby’s held its select antiquities sale in a single afternoon session, a notable change from its previous larger two-session sales. The firm has intentionally scaled down these sales, focusing on pieces with proven provenance. One of the highlights was undoubtedly a fine Egyptian limestone bust of a man, from the Old Kingdom, fifth Dynasty, about 2520-2360 BC. There was fierce competition for the magnificent polychromed figure, which finally sold to a bidder in the room for $265,600 against an estimate of $80/120,000.

A lovely and rare terracotta Neolithic figure of a woman also attracted great interest both in the room and on the lines, selling to a private telephone bidder for $187,200 against an estimate of $40/60,000. The diminutive reclining figure, which is dated to about the first half of the sixth millennium BC, has an excellent provenance and is extensively published.

The highest price of the day was $456,000 for lot 52, two Egyptian tapestry-woven panels depicting personifications of spring and summer, dated to about the late 4th/early 5th century A.D. These were the highlights of the sale both for their beauty and provenance, which traces back to the Theodor Graf Collection put together in the late 19th century. Multiple telephone bidders drove the price up, far surpassing the estimate of $150/$250,000.

Christie’s held two separate sales on 11 December, with the morning dedicated to antiquities and the afternoon to ancient jewellery. The morning sale totalled $6,044,876 but produced the most dramatic disappointment of the week.

The eagerly awaited and extensively published monumental Roman bronze figure of an emperor, late second/early third century AD, consigned by the renowned collector Asher Edelman, only managed to crawl to $1,799,500, well under its “on request” $2/3 million estimate. Bidding was light and the piece went to a telephone bidder, reported to be a private European businessman. There was astonishment in the room as everyone had expected the bronze to make at least $3 million. After the sale, Mr Edelman told the Art Newspaper he was “very, very disappointed and surprised by the result,” as he had received serious offers before the sale in excess of the price eventually realised.

A number of Egyptian lots were also offered by Christie’s, with some of the finest coming from the William B. May Collection in Texas. One of these, lot 4, a very important Egyptian terracotta pottery jar of about 3000 BC, inscribed for King Narmer, sold to a US private collector on the telephone for $147,500 (£84,770), against an estimate of $70/90,000,
Several other pieces sold well above estimate, including some Roman marble imperial portraits, a Near Eastern silver vessel, and a superb Egyptian Hematite scarab.

The afternoon sale of Ancient Jewellery set a record at $1,137,186, although nearly one third of the 132 lots went unsold. Included was one of the undisputed highlights of the year, lot 336, an extraordinary Egyptian gold stirrup ring from the reign of the legendary Pharaoh Akhenaten, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1353-35 BC. The intaglio depicts Akhenaten himself, along with religious iconography. After aggressive telephone and room competition, the ring was finally won by a European private collector bidding in the room, for a record $354,700, (£203,850/ €290,738), the highest single price ever achieved in a sale of ancient jewellery.

The auction houses appear to be taking different approaches to the changing demands of the antiquities market with Christie’s offering a wider range for a wider audience. Nevertheless, both antiquities sales had nearly identical results (at 77/78% sold by lot, 87/88% by value). Coupled with these solid performances are the records set for ancient jewellery, reflecting the strength of the US antiquities market, buoyed by pieces of outstanding quality and excellent provenance.