Trophy pieces: exceptional antiquities go under the hammer

If one thing could be said to characterise the current art market, it would be the cult of the masterpiece. As every auction season passes, the chasm in price between the best and the rest seems to widen, a reflection perhaps of many buyers’ desire to cherry-pick trophy pieces rather than collect in any one field. The problem, of course, is sourcing the material. To this end, resourceful auction houses widen their nets not only to find but also to promote outstanding works of art: hence Sotheby’s forthcoming Treasures (July 9) and Christie’s The Exceptional Sale (July 10).

Six years ago, Christie’s devoted a sale to just 12 pieces of British furniture as a means of drawing attention to an unprecedented offering of Thomas Chippendale. That evolved into The Exceptional Sale, a tightly curated assemblage of select decorative arts and sculpture, now held every summer. Sotheby’s soon countered with the equally splendid Treasures: Aristocratic Heirlooms, Treasures: Princely Taste, and now simply Treasures. In this language of superlatives, the word “antiques”, with its stuffy connotations, is studiously avoided.

Glamorously packaged and presented, these evening sales are targeting the kind of buyer who wouldn’t dream of wading through heavy catalogues of the merely important to find a gem. Importantly, they also encourage owners of major works of art to put them up for auction with works of comparable value. The potential of this platform is gradually revealing itself as previously unheard-of prices continue to be found for material that has long been regarded as the poor relation to “flat” art.

Much of this flamboyant material – rather out of fashion among western collectors – chimes with the tastes of a growing number of buyers from the emerging markets, particularly China. And this year’s offerings should not disappoint. They are rich in objects that combine sumptuous materials and astounding technical virtuosity with illustrious provenance: Renaissance bronzes and gilt-copper automata, mother-of-pearl and gold inlaid tortoise shell, amber, ivory, pietra dura, porphyry, majolica, jewelled boxes, ormolu-mounted furniture, porcelain and marble vases. There is a Savonnerie carpet woven for Louis XV (Christie’s, £500,000-£800,000), and a gilt and enamel tower clock and swan automaton made in London around 1790 for a Chinese emperor (Sotheby’s, £1m-£1.5m).

Early 14th-century diptych by Giovanni da Rimini, depicting the lives of the Virgin and other saints (£2m­£3m) (Photograph: Sotheby’s)

What distinguishes this year’s sales, however, is the quality of the sculpture, both ancient and modern. The top lots of both auctions are antiquities. Sotheby’s offers a monumental Roman imperial marble Aphrodite from around 41-54AD (£4m-£6m). She is one of 17 works from the collections of the dukes of Northumberland in the sale, part of a wide-ranging group of some 80 lots consigned to 10 different auctions to replenish funds lost after a culvert belonging to the estate collapsed in Tyneside during heavy rains. Their combined estimate is £15m but the total is likely to be far more.

The magisterial Aphrodite – more than 2m tall – appears to be one of the most faithful and complete surviving replicas of a lost Greek original of around 430-420BC. She is arguably also one of the best preserved and most beautiful marble antiquities seen at auction in recent years. Moreover, Sotheby’s research has added to her lustre by demonstrating that her head, previously believed a later addition, is, in fact, original, and also finding an earlier provenance that begins when the then armless figure was recorded in the gardens of the Palazzo Cesi in Rome in the 16th century.

Long overlooked in the duke’s study at Syon was a dramatically patinated bronze on a grand Boulle base only recently revealed to be a work of the French mannerist sculptor Barthélemy Prieur, of around 1590, “The Blind Orion Guided by Cedalion” (£150,000-200,000).

A less obscure classical subject was chosen for the group of Limoges enamel panels. Made in 1530, these glowing jewel-like enamels, painted on copper with gilt highlights, illustrate scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid. Let’s see who – if anyone – buys them, estimated at £800,000-£1.2m.

Sekhemka, Inspector of the Scribes (c2,400-2,300BC) (Photograph: Christie’s)

At its best, furniture is pure sculpture, and the George II mahogany commode here, possibly designed by the great William Kent, is just about as good as English furniture gets (£800,000-£1.2m). Another Northumberland treasure not to be missed, this time in Sotheby’s Old Master paintings evening sale on July 9, is one leaf of a rare, refined and miraculously preserved early 14th-century diptych by Giovanni da Rimini, an early follower of Giotto. This lively, inventive gold-ground panel records the lives of the Virgin and other saints (£2m-£3m); its other leaf is in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome.

The dispersal of historic collections is one source of fresh material on the art market; the other is museum deaccessions. The latest controversial sell-off is the star lot of Christie’s The Exceptional Sale. This is a remarkable Egyptian Old Kingdom painted limestone tomb statue made to serve as a “living image” of the deceased Sekhemka, Inspector of the Scribes, from around 2,400-2,300BC. The scribe’s wife Sitmerit kneels to one side, her left hand engagingly wrapped around Sekhemka’s leg and her toes protruding to the side of his seat, which bears not only a relief image of their son Seshemnefer but a frieze of bearers bringing offerings of a duck, geese, a calf, lotus flowers, unguent and incense. Sekhemka’s partially unrolled papyrus scroll lists the offerings needed to sustain him in the afterlife. The group was acquired, probably from the Royal Cemeteries at Saqqara, by the 2nd Marquess of Northampton in about 1850. First lent, and then given, to the Northampton Museum, it is being offered by the local council with an estimate of £4m-£6m.

‘A Bronze Group of the Rape of a Sabine’ (c1583-1598) by Giambologna (Photograph: Christie’s)

From a private collection comes the sale’s other great tour de force – a thrilling bronze group (c1583-1598) by Giambologna, after his monumental marble “Rape of a Sabine”, its complex, upwardly spiralling composition of three figures novel for being conceived to be viewed in the round. This particular example is distinguished from other versions by bearing the inscription, Gio Bolonge, apparently made in the wax itself. Effectively the sculptor’s signature, it is known on only two other bronzes. Last seen at auction in 1989 when it sold for a world record £2.75m, this bronze, dating from the 1580 or 1590s, now returns with expectations of £3m-£5m.

Treasures, Sotheby’s, July 9,

The Exceptional Sale, July 10,

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