Feature: Jewels of the Ancients
Christie’s does not auction ancient jewelry every day. To be precise, it holds just one sale a year that focuses on rings, bracelets, necklaces, and precious items forged by members of the Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and other civilizations that existed between 3500 B.C. and A.D. 1000.
G. Max Bernheimer, the head of Christie’s antiquities department, has been orchestrating antiquities sales at the New York auction house for the last 10 years, and the annual jewelry sale scheduled to take place on December 13 is his brainchild. Since its debut in 1999, the auction has only gained momentum, attracting a growing amount of interest from collectors and dealers. “We’ve done increasingly better as the years have gone on,” Bernheimer says, and the sales figures bear him out. The first auction totaled just under half a million dollars, while each of the subsequent auctions each collected more than $700,000.
While he says it is “anyone’s guess” about where prices will go in 2002, they will probably remain healthy if history is any guide. The fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks failed to dampen last year’s totals, and this year’s stock market scandals are fueling a fresh drive to invest in tangibles such as art and real estate. “The very top of the [art] market is performing exceedingly well,” Bernheimer says.
Bernheimer has spent months traveling and gathering items for the antique jewelry auction, which will ultimately consist of nearly 200 lots. Featured here are selected highlights from the sale. All the items in the auction will be on public view at the Rockefeller Center site from December 7 through 12, and they will also be available for viewing online at www.christies.com by mid-November. Information on registering to bid can also be found on the site.
One thing becomes clear when viewing ancient jewelry: Gold truly stands the test of time. As evidence, consider this emerald, pearl, and gold necklace from the late fourth century or early fifth century. Both the intricate openwork disk at the clasp and the strand that unites the emeralds and pearls are made from the precious metal, and as fragile as it might appear, the necklace has survived for more than 1,500 years. “That’s the amazing thing about gold,” Bernheimer says. “It’s a thin wire, but fairly strong.” The disk was fashioned out of gold wire that was folded, rolled, and soldered into the desired shape.
Seal of Approval
This Greek swivel ring from the fifth century is one of Bernheimer’s favorites, although he might be biased: He did write a thesis on Greek seals such as this one. Bernheimer describes the bezel-set stone as a “beautiful bright red carnelian” that is carved with an image of Herakles (aka Hercules) wearing the Nemean lionskin. “A tiny thing, but you could blow it up to 10 feet high and it would still look good,” Bernheimer says of the stone, which is just 13/16ths of an inch wide. The ring is especially rare among ancient jewelry pieces because of its Greek origin (Roman rings of this type are far more common) and because the stone remains in its original setting. “It’s not the most fantastic, but it’s very lovely, and the state of preservation is excellent,” says Bernheimer. “I don’t think I’ve had an original setting [before this] since I arrived at Christie’s 10 years ago.” The ring was a tool as well as a jewel: Its wearer would have used it as a personal seal. The stout loop that secures the ring to the finger indicates that it was designed for daily use.
Updating the Past
Shown above is a gold, boat-shaped Parthian pendant (top), dating from the first or second century, and an Akkadian lapis lazuli cylinder seal (bottom), which dates to sometime between 2334 B.C. and 2154 B.C. In both cases, the necklaces are contemporary pieces, strung with beads made from ancient materials. Bernheimer says that the blue glass strand accompanying the two-headed Parthian pendant is a “reasonable replica of what it might have hung on.” The lapis lazuli cylinder is carved with images of a tree and of a lion attacking a bull, and was designed to leave this mark when rolled across an impressionable surface. The gold caps on the cylinder are contemporary, and its necklace is strung with ancient lapis lazuli and gilt silver beads. It is a modern confection that bears little resemblance to the jewelry of the period, but as Bernheimer explains, “The lapis lazuli beads are similar in color and quality [to the cylinder]. It works together in a simple, tasteful way.”
Estimate for the Parthian pendant: $7,000–$9,000.
Estimate for the Akkadian cylinder seal: $5,000–$7,000.
Large oval stones, such as the carnelian ring stone seen here, were common throughout the Greek world. Dating to the first century B.C., it is carved with a pantheistic image of Tyche, the goddess of luck. It is pantheistic because Tyche is depicted with the attributes of other Greek goddesses as well as her own: She holds her cornucopia in one hand and a ship’s rudder in the other, but she also wears the helmet of Athena, goddess of war, and holds a sheaf of wheat, which is symbolic of the grain goddess Ceres. At some point, the stone was liberated from its original ring setting and remounted as a pendant.
These gold bracelets were apparently made between the second and third centuries. Each set of snake heads appears to be designed to flank something spectacular—garnets, amethysts, emeralds, quartz, or maybe even glass—features that obviously did not survive to the present. The ovals between the snake heads were added more recently by a collector who had a flair for jewelry design. Such modifications are fairly common in ancient jewelry, which rarely passes down through the ages intact. In selecting items for auction, Bernheimer scrutinizes the augmentations a piece has undergone, making decisions on a case-by-case basis. “If there’s too much [modification], I stay away,” he says. “In this case, it is tastefully done, and is a small part of the whole.”
An Egyptian Souvenir
United in this necklace is a collection of Egyptian amulets, the oldest dating to 2040 B.C. and the newest to A.D. 200. While a wide variety of amulets are featured here, most take the shape of scarabs, the sacred symbol of ancient Egypt. Sometime around 1920 the collection was rendered as a necklace, probably in France. Bernheimer explains how it might have come to be: Someone visited Egypt when these ancient artifacts were legally sold on the street, brought the collection home to France, and asked a jeweler to set them.
Less Is More
The center of this small Byzantine cross once showcased a stone or bead. “It could easily have been replaced, but I chose to leave it as is,” Bernheimer says. What has not been lost is the detail work on the cross itself, which was made sometime between the fifth and sixth centuries. Each arm displays opus interrasile, a type of artistry in which sheet gold is pierced and incised with decorative flourishes. Given the beauty of the craftsmanship, the stone would only be superfluous.