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Marble Sarcophagus Relief Auctions for $1.5 Million at Sotheby’s

An ancient Roman marble relief panel with Dionysiac decoration that was recently discovered to once have been in the collection of French writer Émile Zola sold for $1,538,500 at Sotheby’s Antiquities auction in New York. Six bidders competed for the piece which eventually sold to an anonymous telephone bidder. It was the highlight of the sale which totaled $5.8 million – well in excess of the $2.3/3.5 million estimate.

Discussing the sale Richard Keresey and Florent Heintz of Sotheby’s Antiquities Department said: “We are thrilled with the $1.5 million achieved today for the Roman Sarcophagus relief. The piece boasts remarkable ownership history, having belonged not only to Emile Zola but at times over the past 100 years to the actress Cécile Sorel and Paul Reynaud the former French head of state. We are able to trace unbroken provenance trace back over 500 years.”

Sarcophagus ReliefSarcophagus Relief
Before belonging to Zola, who acquired it in 1894, the panel was known to have been part of the Borghese family collection, which was mostly formed in Rome in the early 17th Century by Cardinal Scipio Borghese, one of the most famous antiquities collectors of the early Baroque era. After Zola the panel was owned by theater actress Cécile Sorel, who appears to have had it built against her bathtub, and by Paul Reynaud, the French politician and head of state who was jailed in 1940 for his opposition to the armistice with Germany.

A Sotheby’s antiquities specialist made the discovery that Zola had owned the relief when attempting to fill a gap in the provenance of the object between the late 19th century, when it was last seen and sketched in a villa belonging to the Borghese family, the Villa Taverna, and the early 20th century, when it reappeared in Paris. By looking for other ancient marbles known to have come from the Villa Taverna the specialist found one with the same provenance in the online Louvre database, where it was said to have come from the estate of Émile Zola. The logical step was to look for an auction sale of Zola’s estate, which turned out to have taken place in March of 1903: the auction catalogue listed the Louvre relief as lot 463 and the Sotheby’s relief as lot 465.

Marble Group of Atalanta and Hippomenes
A further discovery that achieved a strong price in the sale was Marble Group of Atalanta and Hippomenes, which sold for $128,500 against an estimate of $70/100,000. Until now, it was only known through an engraving from the early 1700s. Earlier this year, it was scheduled to be sold in a sale of garden sculpture at Sotheby’s Amsterdam when Sotheby’s Antiquities specialists realized exactly what it was: The work of a Baroque sculptor reusing two ancient torsos, a practice that was common in Rome at the time. The piece was formerly in the esteemed Barberini Collection, one of the most important collections of classical marbles in Rome in the early 17th century.

Other Highlights
Other highlights included an Egyptian Red Granite Head from circa 1479-1450 BC that had been in the collection of Nicolas Count von Arco in Munich in the early 20th century. It sold for $272,500 against a $40/60,000 estimate. A Roman bronze figure of Aphrodite, formerly in the Havemeyer collection doubled the top estimate to sell for $530,500. In her memoirs Louisine Havermeyer recalls that the statue was displayed in the Rembrandt Room or Library which had been designed for the display of the couple’s Old Master Paintings (pictured right). The cover lot of the sale a Roman Marble Head of the Sandal-binding Hermes by Lysippos, from circa early 2nd Century A.D. also achieved a strong price selling for $182,500, double the presale high estimate.

Image: Photo: Sotheby’s