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$33.2 million for Two Masterpieces at Christie’s “Exceptional Sale”

June 20, 2014

UPDATE 4: According to Artlyst the Northampton Museums have lost their Art Council accreditation because they sold the Egyptian statue; consequently, the museums “will now be excluded from future participation until August 2019 and are no longer eligible for Arts Council grants.”

UPDATE 3: Controversy and protests notwithstanding, the 4,500-year-old Egyptian statue known as the Northampton Sekhemka has been sold. Bidding opened at £3 million, had reached £3.8 million when a protester in the room interrupted the proceedings. At one point he vowed/warned any successful buyer “we will follow you.” The auctioneer turned off the audio feed and sat down.  After a couple of minutes the sale continued and the statue finally sold to a telephone bidder for a hammer price of £14 million (£15,762,500 with the buyer’s premium or $26,985,402) against a £4-6 million estimate; the Financial Times reports this set a new “world record for an ancient Egyptian artwork at auction.”

Lot 30, the Giambologna Rape of a Sabine Woman also sold, though on the low side of its £3-5 million estimate – it made a hammer price of £3.2 million (£3,666,500 with the buyer’s premium or $6,277,048).

The hammer comes down on the sale of the Northampton Sekhemka.

The hammer comes down on the sale of the Northampton Sekhemka.

UPDATE 2: The UK Museums Association has urged the Northampton Borough Council to rethink the sale of rate Northampton Sekhemka. In a statement issued July 1, the Council was warned that the Guildhall Road museum could lose its accreditation:

David Fleming, chairman of the MA’s ethics committee, said: “We do appreciate the huge financial pressure that many local authority museums are under at the present time, but the MA’s code of ethicsprovides for such a sale only as a last resort after other sources of funding have been thoroughly explored.

“At a time when public finances are pressured it is all the more important that museum authorities behave in an ethical fashion in order to safeguard the long-term public interest.

“We would urge the council to seek alternative sources of capital funding before undertaking the sale of such an important item with a long history of association with the borough. Without this, the MA cannot endorse the sale.”

Arts Council England (ACE) has said that the sale could jeopardise Northampton Museum’s Accreditation status. The MA also warned that the council may face difficulties should it seek grant funding to support the extension project if it loses Accreditation.

UPDATE 1: According to the Northampton Chronicle & Echothe Egyptian government has weighed to prevent the sale of the Northampton Sekhemka (below), scheduled to go to auction on July 10.  From the article:

An Egyptian minister has denounced the upcoming sale of Sekhemka and accused Northampton Borough Council of acting against the “values of museums worldwide”.

Antiquities Minister Mamdouh El-Damati has asked the Egyptian embassy in London to take all legal procedures to prevent an ancient statue from being sold in a Christie’s auction on Thursday.

In quotes reported on the English-language Egyptian news website ahramonline, Mr El-Damati has denounced the sale of the statue and described the museum’s actions as incompatible with the values and role of museums worldwide, which he said should “spread culture” and not try to simply earn money.

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The aptly named July 10, 2014 Exceptional Sale at Christie’s in London will slake your thirst … and drain your wallet … but, oh will you be stocked with some treasures.This posting will focus on the two highest estimated lots among the 58 on offer – first is Lot 10, the outstanding Northampton Sekhemka, a 4,500-year-old Egyptian statue, followed by Lot 30, a bronze group representing the Rape of a Sabine Woman by Giambologna.

The Sekhemka was acquired by Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, 2nd Marquess of Northampton (1790-1851), in Egypt between December 1849 and April 1850 and has been in the family ever since.  There are extensive catalogue notes (excerpted below) and a video. According to the Northampton Chronicle & Echo sale of the “highly-valued Egyptian limestone figure, once a centrepiece display in the town’s museum … will help pay for a ‘state-of-the-art’ redevelopment and expansion of the Guildhall Road museum.”  The work should generate interest from serious antiquities collectors, both private and institutional. However, this deaccession has been met with protest, too.  The Northampton Chronicle & Echo reports the move “has been publicly denounced by both the Arts Council of England and the Museums Association, which both said the move could risk the museum losing its accredited status and, in turn, its ability to apply for major grant funding from various bodies.”

The article also notes:

The Save Sekhemka Group is calling on Northampton people to help its fight to block the July 10 Christies sale.

They need to raise £2,000 in order to pay for a barrister, that they say would look into the legality of the bid to sell it and would convince both the council and the Marquis of Northampton to be ‘more transparent’ in their currently ‘confidential’ dealings.

They believe that the Sekhemka was gifted to the people of Northampton as part of a ‘Deed of Gift’ signed by the 4th Marquis of Northampton in 1880, as part of a ‘geological collection’ of Egyption items.

However legal representatives of the current Marquis said the Sekhemka was not covered as part of the ‘gifted’ collection, though they say he is entitled to a portion of its sale.

Lot 10. AN EXCEPTIONAL EGYPTIAN PAINTED LIMESTONE STATUE FOR THE INSPECTOR OF THE SCRIBES SEKHEMKA OLD KINGDOM, DYNASTY 5, CIRCA 2400-2300 B.C.  Depicted seated, wearing a tight-fitting wig with rows of carefully-cut curls, his expressive face intact and beautifully carved with subtly moulded brows, his eyes looking slightly downward, with a short nose and a softly modelled mouth, the slightly smiling lips outlined by a raised vermillion line, wearing a short pleated kilt with a knotted belt and a pleated tab angled above, holding a partially unrolled papyrus scroll on his lap with a hieroglyphic inscription listing twenty-two varied offerings, his powerful bare chest with clearly indicated collar bones, muscular arms and strong legs, his hands finely detailed, a hieroglyphic inscription on the seat reading: “Inspector of the scribes of the house of the master of largess, one revered before the great god, Sekhemka”; to his right, his wife in much smaller scale kneeling, her left leg bent elegantly beneath her right, her left arm tenderly embracing Sekhemka’s right leg, wearing a tight-fitting ankle-length dress, the accompanying inscription reading: “The one concerned with the affairs of the king, one revered before the great god, Sitmeret”; to his left a young man sculpted in raised relief, most probably his son, with an inscription reading: “Scribe of the master of largess, Seshemnefer”; the three sides of the cubic seat sculpted in shallow raised relief with a ceremonial procession of male offering bearers bringing a duck, geese, a calf, lotus flowers, unguent and incense 29 ½ in. (75 cm.) high; 12 ¼ in. (31.2 cm.) wide; 17 3/8 in. (44.1 cm.) deep  Estimate: 4-6 million. Click on image to enlarge.

Lot 10. AN EXCEPTIONAL EGYPTIAN PAINTED LIMESTONE STATUE FOR THE INSPECTOR OF THE SCRIBES SEKHEMKA
OLD KINGDOM, DYNASTY 5, CIRCA 2400-2300 B.C.
Depicted seated, wearing a tight-fitting wig with rows of carefully-cut curls, his expressive face intact and beautifully carved with subtly moulded brows, his eyes looking slightly downward, with a short nose and a softly modelled mouth, the slightly smiling lips outlined by a raised vermillion line, wearing a short pleated kilt with a knotted belt and a pleated tab angled above, holding a partially unrolled papyrus scroll on his lap with a hieroglyphic inscription listing twenty-two varied offerings, his powerful bare chest with clearly indicated collar bones, muscular arms and strong legs, his hands finely detailed, a hieroglyphic inscription on the seat reading: “Inspector of the scribes of the house of the master of largess, one revered before the great god, Sekhemka”; to his right, his wife in much smaller scale kneeling, her left leg bent elegantly beneath her right, her left arm tenderly embracing Sekhemka’s right leg, wearing a tight-fitting ankle-length dress, the accompanying inscription reading: “The one concerned with the affairs of the king, one revered before the great god, Sitmeret”; to his left a young man sculpted in raised relief, most probably his son, with an inscription reading: “Scribe of the master of largess, Seshemnefer”; the three sides of the cubic seat sculpted in shallow raised relief with a ceremonial procession of male offering bearers bringing a duck, geese, a calf, lotus flowers, unguent and incense
29 ½ in. (75 cm.) high; 12 ¼ in. (31.2 cm.) wide; 17 3/8 in. (44.1 cm.) deep
Estimate: £4-6 million ($6,784,000-10,176,000).
£14 million (£15,762,500 with the buyer’s premium or $26,985,402).
Click on image to enlarge.
Provenance
Probably from the Royal Cemeteries, Saqqara.
Acquired by Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, 2nd Marquess of Northampton (1790-1851), in Egypt between December 1849 and April 1850.
Presented to the Northampton Museums and Art Gallery by either Charles Douglas-Compton, 3rd Marquess of Northampton (1816-1877) or Admiral William Compton, 4th Marquess of Northampton (1818-1897).
Exhibited
The Northampton Museum, Northampton, general exhibition, 1866–1899.
The Abington Museum, Northampton, Egyptian room, 1899–1950s.
General exhibition, Northampton Central Museum, Northampton, from 1960.
The Abington Museum, Northampton, Ancient Egypt – Land of Mystery, 1977.
Northampton Central Museum and Art Gallery, Northampton, Mummies and Megaliths – the Bronze Age in Britain and Egypt, 1983.
Northampton Central Museum and Art Gallery, Northampton, Ancient Egypt: The Northampton Collection, 1988.
General exhibition, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, Northampton, 2001-2012.

SCULPTURE IN THE OLD KINGDOM 2500 B.C. – ETERNITY

Life after death was the primary belief in ancient Egypt and preparing for one’s welfare after death was the project of a lifetime. A tomb needed to be built, funerary equipment had to be arranged, and the mortuary cult needed to be performed. Aside from the royal family, only the elite had the resources to fully realise these demands. The tomb was made in two parts, comprising a substructure where the sarcophagus was placed, and a superstructure with decorated rooms and chapels. It was a favour of the king to be permitted to have a sumptuously decorated tomb, given only to esteemed members of the administration. Artisans from the royal workshop would create the colourfully decorated walls and lifelike statues representing the deceased and his family.

Group sculptures representing the royal family are known since the early Dynastic period, circa 3000-2650 B.C. A relief fragment from Heliopolis shows an early depiction of king Djoser with his family gathered around his legs. The intimate attitude of the wife kneeling on the ground, her legs tucked to one side, her arm around her husband’s legs was reserved only for royal women in the 4th dynasty (circa 2600-2450 B.C.). Only in the 5th dynasty did non-ruling members of the royal family adopt this style, as with the example of the statue of princess Nebibnebty and her husband Seankhuptah, dating to circa 2450-2300 B.C. This type was subsequently gradually adopted by high officials and entered private statuary shortly after.

Only one other statue is attributed to Sekhemka, Inspector of the Scribes, and is in the Brooklyn Museum. The kneeling figure is made of diorite, the base is in limestone, painted to imitate diorite and is decorated as an offering table. It is suggested that Sekhemka may have had a discarded royal sculpture repaired and a base added to it. The similar quality of the carving between this and the present lot certainly serves to link the two pieces. Moreover, both statues were brought out of Egypt at around the same time; Dr. Henry Abbott, the original owner of the Brooklyn Sekhemka, returned with his collection in 1851.

 

Lot 10.

Lot 10. Click on image to enlarge.

SESHEMNEFER

On the front of the cubic seat, to the right of Sekhemka, is a figure of a young man, Seshemnefer, walking to the left. He is depicted nude, a sign of youth, and holds a large lotus flower with long stem in his left hand, the symbol of rebirth. As well as providing his name, the hieroglyphic inscription above his head identifies him as a scribe of the master of largess, which suggests that he worked in the same office as his father. That such a young man already has a work title may appear incongruous, however this is a depiction of Sekhemka’s son as an idealized youth. His presence reinforces the carefully constructed image of an idyllic, young and fecund family.

Lot 10.

Lot 10. Click on image to enlarge.

Lot 10. Detail.

Lot 10. Detail. Click on image to enlarge.

SITMERIT AND INTIMACY IN ANCIENT EGYPT

Sekhemka’s wife, Sitmerit, meaning literally “The Daughter of Merit”, is shown kneeling to his right. Though diminutive in scale, her refined features are stately and beautiful. Her imposing wide wig frames her round face, whilst rows of straight and curling natural hair appear on her forehead. Her eyes gaze upwards, in the same direction as Sekhemka’s. She is wearing a tight-fitted white linen dress, revealing the shape of her body. The dress was patterned in blue and orange around her breasts, as the remains of pigment behind her shoulders reveal. Her wrists and ankles are adorned with bracelets and traces of a broad collar are visible on her neck. She is delicately embracing her husband’s right leg, with her left hand carved on the inside of his calf.

Canons in Egyptian art were established by the royal family and followed by the elite, who were always trying to emulate their sovereign. Although appearing quite static at first glance, representations of royal and private couples always have an element of intimacy, showing conjugal affection. In the 4th dynasty, the wife is only touching her husband with one hand, but by the 5th dynasty, she will be gently brushing his calf with her fingertips. Later examples show husband and wife holding hands, arm in arm, or even embracing by the shoulders.

Here, the position of Sitmerit’s body, as well as her composed expression is perhaps what gives peacefulness and harmony to this family portrait. It shows the close link between husband and wife, and their attachment to their family. The smaller scale is not a symbol of women’s place in society; rather, it is an artistic choice, for women had an equal status with men. She provides the love and support that her family needs. She prompts desire, gives life, and watches over her loved ones. She has a protective role and is the grounding force for the family.

Lot 10. Detail.

Lot 10. Detail. Click on image to enlarge.

THE SCROLL

Sekhemka holds a papyrus scroll open on his lap. The hieroglyphic inscription lists offerings, with much detail about type and quantity, including food, beverages, unguents and liquids, incense and cosmetics, funerary equipment and royal gifts. These are the essential offerings that Sekhemka will need to subsist comfortably in in the afterlife.

Register I
Water-pouring
Incense
Festival perfume, one jar
Hekenu-oil, one jar
Sefet-oil, one jar
Nehenem-oil, one jar
Tuaut-oil, one jar
First quality cedar oil, one jar
First quality Libyan oil, one jar
Green eye-paint, one bag
Black eye-paint, one bag

Register II
Cloth strips, a pair
Incense
Cool water; two pellets (of natron)
An offering-table
Royal offering, two cakes (?)
Royal offering of the hall, two cakes (?)
Sitting
Breakfast, bread and beer
One Tetu-loaf
One Te-reteh-loaf
One Nemeset-jar of beer

Lot 10. Detail.

Lot 10. Detail. Click on image to enlarge.

And now, the Giambologna.

Lot 30. A BRONZE GROUP OF THE RAPE OF A SABINE  BY GIAMBOLOGNA (c.1529-1608), FLORENCE, CIRCA 1583-98 inscribed 'GIO BOLONGE' on the rockwork base; the standing Roman male figure holding the Sabine woman aloft, the Sabine man crouching below 23 ¼ in. (59 cm.) high  Estimate: £3-5 million ($5,088,000-8,480,000). Click on image to enlarge. Provenance Almost certainly purchased in the years 1919-1928 by a private European collector, probably in Germany.  Sold by the above 'A Continental Lady of Title', Christie’s, London, 5 December 1989, lot 100 (£2,750,000). Acquired by the present owner in the above sale.

Lot 30. A BRONZE GROUP OF THE RAPE OF A SABINE
BY GIAMBOLOGNA (c.1529-1608), FLORENCE, CIRCA 1583-98
inscribed ‘GIO BOLONGE’ on the rockwork base; the standing Roman male figure holding the Sabine woman aloft, the Sabine man crouching below
23 ¼ in. (59 cm.) high
Estimate: £3-5 million ($5,088,000-8,480,000).
This lot sold for a hammer price of £3.2 million (£3,666,500 with the buyer’s premium or $6,277,048).
Click on image to enlarge.
Provenance
Almost certainly purchased in the years 1919-1928 by a private European collector, probably in Germany.
Sold by the above ‘A Continental Lady of Title’, Christie’s, London, 5 December 1989, lot 100 (£2,750,000).
Acquired by the present owner in the above sale.

The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna, in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. Click on image to enlarge.

The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna, in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. Click on image to enlarge.

The statue, as the lots notes and a  video discuss, is based on Giambologna’s marble version in Florence. According to the catalogue:

Nothing is known about the commission of the marble but according to a letter of 27 October 1580 by Simone Fortuna to the Duke of Urbino … Giambologna was then at work on a marble group of three statues (‘un gruppo di tre statue’) soon to be finished and destined for the Loggia dei Pisani, a loggia that once stood opposite the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria. Because it is Giambologna’s only marble composed of three figures, and because of its destination for a loggia in the same piazza where it was finally placed, this must have been the Rape of a Sabine Woman … The marble was finished, apart from the ‘ultima mano’, by 30 July 1582, when Donatallo’s Judith was removed from where it had stood under the right-hand side arch of the Loggia dei Lanzi and replaced, on 28 August, by the ‘miracoloso gruppo’ of Giambologna’s Rape of a Sabine … It was, however, covered for Giambologna to add the finishing touches ‘a suo piacere senza essere veduto da nessuno’ (‘at his leisure, without being seen by anyone’), as the diarist Settimani reports for that date. Its unveiling took place on 14 January 1583 and caused a stir of emotion and excitement.

About this bronze, the catalogue says:

The Rape of a Sabine Woman offered here belongs to a small group of bronzes modelled, cast, and finished in a similar way: those in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich (inv. 52/118, published in Weihrauch 1956, pp. 84-87, cat. 110); with Mr. and Mrs. J. Tomilson Hill, New York (Kryza-Gersch, in Wengraf 2014, pp. 148-155, cat. 9); in the Liechtenstein Princely collections, Vaduz-Vienna (inv. SK 115, Draper, in: Frankfurt 1986, p. 177, cat. 16); and in a private collection. Among these, it is the only one bearing an inscription with Giambologna’s name. Because its technical features and artistic quality are consistent with bronzes known or likely to have been produced under Giambologna’s supervision, this inscription amounts to a signature.

Lot 30. Detail.

Lot 30. Detail. Click on page to enlarge.

Bronze groups representing the Rape of a Sabine Woman with three figures are not documented in Giambologna’s lifetime. However, a cast described in the inventory of the Kunstkammer of Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612, r. 1576) as ‘a group after the one Giovan Bologna made in Florence of white marble, being three figures of bronze, is a Rape of a Sabine’ (‘Ein gruppo nach dem Giovan Bolonia so er zu Florentz von weissem marmo gemacht, sein 3 figurn von bronzo, ist ein rabimento Sabine’; Bauer/Haupt 1976, p. 101, no. 1907) must have been an autograph work. Rudolph probably knew Giambologna personally. He knighted him on 26 August 1588 (Desjardins 1883, App. E 172-174), and according to the above-mentioned inventory, which was drawn up between 1607 and 1611, he had what must have been the largest collection of Giambologna bronzes that anyone had assembled while the sculptor was still alive.

[…]

The facture of the cast suggests a date after 1584, at which point Giambologna is known to have produced at least one bronze by the indirect casting process: it is, in fact, consistent with that of the Giambologna bronzes so far analysed, the oldest of which is the Bargello Crouching Venus of 1584 (inv. 62B; Sturman 2001, p. 126).

Inspection of the underside and X-rays both show that the group has been expertly cast: its walls are evenly thin, and since great care has been taken to empty it of its casting core, it is light and easy to handle. There are only five noticeable holes: between the Roman’s right leg and the torso of the Crouching Sabine Man, under the right knee of the Roman, at the right temple and the right foot of the Old Man and to the right side of the neck of the Sabine Woman. No other flaws or repairs are visible either to the naked eye or in the X-ray. X-rays also reveal wax to wax joins in the arms of the Sabine Woman and the Old Man. This is consistent with documented Giambologna bronzes.

Lot 30. Detail. Click on image to enlarge.

Lot 30. Detail. Click on image to enlarge.

THE DATE AND THE MAKER OF THE CAST

Although there can be no doubt that the bronze was made under Giambologna’s supervision, it is more difficult to suggest a date. The detail of the eyes with iris and pupil points to a date after 1587, after, that is, the bronzes given to the Elector of Saxony.

Until recently it was widely thought that only Antonio Susini was responsible for casts in Giambologna’s workshop. But, as suggested by the author in 2013, there is no evidence for this in contemporary documents (Zikos 2013). Susini was an expert assistant to Giambologna for preparing large- or small-scale casts from around 1580 to 1605, in which year the old master suggested that the best works that could be had from his hand were bronzes after his own models made by Susini. But Susini is first documented as having produced such works only in 1598, 1599, and 1601, when he gave Giambologna models to cast in the foundry of fra Domenico Portigiani. Only after Giambologna’s death did he open a foundry of his own where he continued to produce his late teacher’s models.

Another expert chiseller in Giambologna’s service was Felice Trabellesi, described in 1588 as the best man in Florence for casting and chiselling bronzes after Giambologna models (Zikos 2013, p. 198). Although Filippo Baldinucci, Susini’s biographer, claims that Trabellesi was Susini’s teacher, it is more likely that they were the same age, as both entered the Florentine Accademia del Disegno in 1589.

It is impossible to say unequivocally that the present bronze was finished by Trabellesi. But, compared to the other four, it is the only one that shows a strength in modelling that distinguishes it both from the cast in Munich (which is the most subtle and must therefore be the latest of all) and from those in the private, the Hill, and the Liechtenstein collections. These latter four are all consistent in the definition of the surface. If we need a name for the Giambologna assistant who helped to produce this bronze, then Traballesi is therefore the most likely candidate. The fine differences between our bronze and the others of the group are evinced by a precise comparison between them, which has also proved that they all depend from the same model, since they all have the same internal measurements.

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