WHAT: A collection of 40 ancient carved gems and cameos assembled by an early 1900s Rome art dealer and connoisseur brought more than $10.6 million, including buyer premiums, at Christie's New York last month. It is a staggering result, considering that each gem was a miniature -- many less than an inch -- originally made as ornament to signify status for a wealthy patron.
Commonly made as finger rings, they were created from precious and semi-precious stones including carnelian, agate, jasper, chalcedony, rock crystal, amethyst, garnet and sapphire. Color and size reflected status.
MORE: Most were cameos or intaglios. Cameos have a raised image with a carved-off background. Shell as a matrix is considered common, but cameo gemstones are valuable. In intaglios, a design is cut down into the surface.
The artistically carved 1st century A.D. Roman sardonyx cameo with a portrait of Nero is a little less than 1 inch long. It sold for $237,500, and had impeccable provenance.
The top lot was a Roman circa 130-138 A.D. chalcedony intaglio portrait that fetched more than $2 million. Called "The Marlborough Antinous," because it was bought by the 4th Duke of Marlborough in 1740, it was kept by his family until the late 1800s. Provenance is intact all the way to 1952 when it was bought by the collector, then kept by his family. Provenance and scholarly writings on the 1 3/8-inch-long gem fill one catalog page.
SMART COLLECTORS KNOW: Potential bidders were not trendy buyers: The gems weren't paintings one could hang to wow friends. Lacking widely followed (and press-worthy) recent market breakthroughs, they would not appeal to a fame seeker influenced by hot trends. The carvings are about subtle appeal.
HOT TIP: Famous faces crossed the block, including a $399,999 Greek gold ring featuring Herakles, an $855,000 4th century B.C. Perseus, and a $1.5 million mini late 1st century B.C. amethyst intaglio of Demosthenes by a known carver.
BOTTOM LINE: Scholars and collectors always have mixed feelings when a significant collection such as this is dispersed. The rest of us can only marvel at the individual who amassed the aggregate with scholarship and love. We can hope that institutions and museums bought, intending to display the gems and teach coming generations.