Ancient Engraved Gems Come to Auction at Christie’s

Liz Catalano
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In the upcoming Christie’s sale of miniature engraved gems, the auction house will feature an often underrepresented art form. “Despite their small size, the highest quality engraved gems rival monumental marbles, vases, and bronzes in terms of artistic skill,” says the auction house’s International Head of Antiquities, G. Max Bernheimer. 30 lots from the collection of Giorgio Sangiorgi will be available, spanning over 2,000 years of craftsmanship.

Online bidding for the miniatures opened on June 2nd and will conclude at 5:00 PM EDT on June 16th. Held exclusively online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this antiquities sale will test the auction house’s recent success with exclusively-online events.

A Roman carnelian ring with a portrait head of Octavian. Image from Christie’s.
A Roman carnelian ring with a portrait head of Octavian. Image from Christie’s.

This upcoming auction is only the second to feature items from the Sangiorgi Collection. Held in April of 2019 at Christie’s, the first used a combination of in-person, online, and phone bidding to achieve a sale total of USD 10,640,500. All 40 lots were sold, many realizing prices well above their high estimates. A chalcedony and gold engraving of Antinous, a young favorite of the Roman emperor Hadrian, sold for $2,115,000 after three minutes of competitive bidding. This was over 400% of the high estimate. 

“We are positively thrilled with the results of the Sangiorgi sale of gems… the 100 percent sold results showed the strength of the market for rare and beautiful works of art with strong provenance,” Bernheimer said in a statement

Part of the 2019 auction’s success can be attributed to the extensive history of its lots. Many engraved gems belonged to the collection of George Spencer, the 4th Duke of Marlborough. An ancestor of Winston Churchill, the Duke collected over 800 carved gemstones and cameos during the 18th century. The collection was eventually broken up to pay for repairs at the Marlborough estate, with many pieces remaining in the family for generations. Sangiorgi, a scholar of antiquities, eventually acquired some Marlborough gems in the early 20th century. Sangiorgi’s collection took many decades to build before his death in 1965, and has since been described as “the finest collection to come to market in a generation or more.” 

One of the leading lots in the upcoming sale is a Roman carnelian ring bearing a portrait of Octavian ($30,000 – $50,000). Measuring only 1.4 centimeters long, it shows the future Emperor Augustus wearing a mourning beard after the assassination of Julius Ceasar in 44 CE. Its small size is typical for ancient engraved stones, which generally do not exceed an inch in length.

A Roman gold and green chalcedony finger ring with a parrot. Image from Christie’s.
A Roman gold and green chalcedony finger ring with a parrot. Image from Christie’s.

Engraved gemstones often served functional purposes in ancient societies. They could be used as portable seals to mark documents and letters, often signaling the wealth and status of the wearer. Later, they would shift to become more aesthetic and decorative. One Roman finger ring available in this event shows an Indian Ringneck parrot in profile. Engraved in green chalcedony and set in gold, this piece reflects the Roman fondness for exotic pets. It has an estimate of $10,000 – $15,000. Other miniatures bear engravings of political figures and religious deities, including Jupiter Ammon and Eros. 

The auction includes an even mix of intaglio and cameo engravings. Intaglios have hollow, recessed images while cameos protrude out toward the wearer. Both have shifted in and out of popularity over the years, though intaglios began to recede with the development of postal services and stamps. This left room for more detailed cameos, which became especially prominent in 16th-century Europe. A carnelian ring from this period, carved with the bust of a man resembling either Lucius Aelius Caesar or the philosopher Plotinos, is among the auction’s highlighted lots. Passed down through the Marlborough family, it has a starting estimate of $7,000 – $9,000. 

“These ancient engraved gems offer a fascinating scholarly window on the ancient world in terms of life, fashion, and ritual,” says Bernheimer. “[They also prove that] the tradition for sentimental jewelry is thousands of years old.” 

The upcoming timed sale falls during Christie’s Classic Week, which includes seven auctions between June 2nd and 19th. Bidding for the miniature gems will be open until June 16th at 5:00 PM EDT. Visit Christie’s for more information and to place a bid. 

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