Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Ancient Glass a "Smash Hit" at Bonhams

A recent "Antiquities" sale (6 Jul 2021) at Bonhams London, New Bond Street contains "Part One of an important American collection of Ancient Glass" (part two will be sold in November).
The collection [...] encompasses the world of ancient glass, from Greek core-formed vessels from the Eastern Mediterranean dating to the 4th-2nd Century B.C. to Late Roman glass of the 5th Century A.D. Head of Bonhams Antiquities Department, Francesca Hickin, said: "With so many shapes, colours and glass-making techniques represented, a collection such as this rarely comes to auction and naturally we are thrilled to be offering it. [...]
This is followed by some trite narrativisation:
At its peak, glass infiltrated every aspect of Roman life. By the 1st century A.D., a glass drinking cup could be bought for a copper coin. Aristocratic women kept scents, cosmetics and oils in flasks and bottles. Jewellers used glass to mimic emeralds, sapphires and amethysts. As tableware, glass became indispensable. It was the staple of any well-dressed Roman dining table, a symbol of prestige that can be seen in many frescos depicting the opulence of the Roman Feast. It is a myth that glass is more fragile than other materials. In fact, its resilience and excellent protective properties makes it perfect for storing and shipping goods, especially food. So good that a glass bottle found at Pompeii still contains the olive oil, now solidified, with which it was filled before the eruption. Curators who have removed the stopper say that even the smell remains.
Highlights from the collection include:
• A Roman blue-green glass lidded cinerary urn circa 1st-2nd Century A.D. Estimate: £8,000-12,000.
• A Roman pale grey-green glass animal-headed rhyton Circa 1st Century A.D. Estimate: £12,000-18,000
• A Roman blue-green glass ribbed bowl circa early 1st century A.D. Estimate: £5,000-7,000
• A Byzantine green glass hexagonal pitcher with Christian Symbols circa 5th-6th Century A.D. Estimate: £3,000-5,000.
• A Roman pale green glass jug with blue looped handle circa late 1st Century A.D. Estimate £1,200-1,800.
and a Roman 'Victory' beaker from the 1st century A.D. made in amber glass, estimate £20,000-30,000. No wonder looters loot... what Bonhams should be stressing is that a "cinerary urn" would have been deposited in a grave with human remains in it. Where did this one come from, if not from a tomb or grave, and how were the contents disposed of? In fact, glass found on settlement sites tends to be in small sherds (because the bigger ones were picked up and removed from where people and animals could tread on them and cut themselves, the same goes for temple sites, marketplaces, public roads, inside Roman villas and their courtyards. Almost everywhere, except graves and tombs. that's where you find complete vessels like the ones in the photo. Digging in the extramural cemeteries around many Roman cities right across Europe will produce them. This American collector was accumulating material that most probably came from the disturbance of very many burials, the desecration of tombs, the disrespectful treatment of human remains. I bet the catalogue does not even give more than a handful of locations (the name of a site) from which this assumed legal extraction took place. Why not? The vessels were part of the history of that site, and part of the history of the person they were buried with.

After the sale we read "Top Glass: Ancient Glass Collection a Smash Hit At Bonhams Antiquities Sale" (Oh yuk) The glass collection made a total of £189,958 doubling its low estimate. The  Roman amber glass 'Victory' beaker sold for £25,250 The "Roman blue-green glass lidded cinerary urn circa 1st-2nd Century A.D. sold for £15,250". Grave robbing pays. Possibly we will see soon a UK dealer offering something like: "From the English Country Churchyard, the Burke N. Hare collection of Medieval and Early Modern funerary and devotional items and coffin fittings". Why not?

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