Posts Tagged ‘sculpture’

Portrait of Augustus in Boston

The MFA Augustus, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, inv. no. 99.344, H. L. Pierce Fund. Photograph © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I’ve been working on this project since I was a graduate student! Other research distractions (like finishing my dissertation in 2005), teaching work, and delays in laboratory tests on this piece slowed down the final publication of the article. Finding the right venue for publication was also difficult. I sent it to a major archaeology journal, who said the project was too art historical. When I sent it to a major art history journal, they said it was too archaeological! I’m so glad this project found a home at the Journal of the History of Collections. The editors were very helpful and patient with me; the work on their side went very quickly, yet meticulously. This is the second article I’ve published in an Oxford University Press journal and both experiences have been excellent.

I wish I could have found a way to quote the late, great Miranda Marvin in the article. When I was first working on this project, I made my way from Kenmore Square out to Wellesley, meeting her for the first time, to talk about this head, to see if she had that “blink” reaction to it, that it could be fake. I brought with me the slick MFA headshots of Augustus, which I laid out on her desk. She glanced at them, then slid them back across the table to me and said very seriously “Anything with a nose is suspect.”

Indeed the state of preservation was a major element in my making a case for this piece not being ancient. The article also tackles the provenance of the piece, its style, and technical aspects. And although laboratory tests were carried out on the head by the Museum of Fine Arts, they proved inconclusive.

Read the article here at the Journal of the History of Collections. It will be in the print version of the journal soon.

Read Full Post »

Papyrologist (and friend) Roberta Mazza has done a tremendous job at her blog of tracking some of the latest news in the extraction of textual papyri, the market for them, and who collects them and why.

In reading her latest post on the Wyman Fragment, I was particularly interested in her points about the factors which influence the prices of papyrus fragments. Naturally the content of the papyrus itself can drive up the value–we can presume the new and controversial Sappho fragments would be insured for more than just your average ancient Egyptian warehouse inventory. Having a clear and legal provenance can increase the economic value of any artifact, not just a papyrus fragment, as both individual collectors and institutions are (slowly) becoming more wary of looted or otherwise “sketchy” pieces. In other words, conscientious collectors will pay a premium to avoid legal action in the future. Sheer competition among buyers influence the cost of any commodity–be it ancient texts or modern real estate. The rarity or non-renewable-resource status of antiquities also drives up price.

One thing that struck me about Mazza’s analysis is that the value of papyri as “collectibles” today is sometimes determined by the same criteria which made objects collectible in antiquity. Here are some examples from the Roman world:

Provenance: While in modern antiquities collecting, provenance is part of the determination of legal/illicit status (with higher prices for licit pieces), in the ancient world, provenance referred to the ownership history, with objects being more valuable if they had passed through the hands of someone important.
Example: Martial Ep. IX.43 tells us of the Hercules Epitrapezios, once owned by both Alexander the Great and Hannibal before it came into Vindex’s collection. While Statius (Silvae IV.6) seems to like the little statuette on its artistic merits, its ownership history was the big draw.ewrq

Name brands: Like Louis Vuitton handbags or Hummel figurines, sometimes a well-known brand is all an object needs to make it valuable (regardless of formal characteristics in some cases). A fragment of Sappho is more valuable than an entire poem written on papyrus by a nobody.
Example: Juvenal Satire 8.100-104 gives us a nice list of the collectible brands of his day, including great Greek masters like Parrhasius, Myron, and Phidias, as well as Coan silk. Anything “Greek” in nature was probably collectible, even if it couldn’t be associated with a famous name. The acclaim of Tyrian purple is well-known and dates to Homer and likely earlier. Corinthian bronze is a famous “brand” of ancient metalwork, known among connoisseurs and poseurs alike. You can contrast Pliny the Younger’s knowledge of it in Ep. III.6 with Trimalchio’s absurd explanation of his Corinthian bronze at Satyricon 50: “Yeah, I get my bronze from a guy down the way named Corinthus.”

Mirabilia: This is something of a combination of name brand, provenance, and natural history. In some cases a single object could “triple-down” on its valuable features.
Example: Pausanias 8, 46 tells us of the tusks of the Calydonian Boar brought from Tegea to Rome by Augustus as war booty after the defeat of Mark Anthony. We presume the tusks were big and impressive to match their illustrious and mythological provenance. Aemilius Scaurus displayed a gigantic skeleton (of a whale?), which was said to be the sea monster which menaced Andromeda.

While status as mirabilia doesn’t necessarily influence the economic value of papyri today, provenance and name brand certainly do. And in the modern market for antiquities, we can see clearly these factors at work in auction prices. For example, the connection to Lorenzo the Magnificent must have been in part responsible for the $3.4-million hammer price for this fragmentary group of satyrs fighting snakes. The piece’s ancient Roman “brand,” as well as its allusion to a Laocoon-like prototype certainly drove up the value as well.


Read Full Post »

The sculpture market in late 18th-century Rome was a confluence of a high demand for antiquities (thanks to Grand Tour traffic), the nascent field of art history and connoisseurship within it, talented sculptors who could create works which appealed to both the taste for ancient art and complete, “perfect” statuary, and some techniques in restoration which in retrospect seem at best bizarre and at worst immoral and violent to the historical record.

A single sentence from my current research project, “Reexamining the Authenticity of a Portrait of Augustus in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.”

Read Full Post »

I’ve just put to bed the latest research project: an essay on Gender and Sexuality for the Oxford Handbook of Roman Sculpture, with the fabulous Eve D’Ambra.

You can see our bibliography here in a Google Doc.

A word cloud of our essay:



I like to think of it as an unofficial, yet hopefully fitting, tribute to Tally Kampen.

Read Full Post »