Archive for July 3rd, 2020

Export barred for Roman dogs after wellhead gets away

Friday, July 3rd, 2020

UK Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage has placed a temporary export bar on a pair of exceptional Roman marble greyhounds from the 2nd century. The set is one of only three similar ones known to exist from the period. They sold at Bonhams London on July 3rd, 2019, for $1,005,156 including buyer’s premium. Now the new owner wishes to export the pair and a British institution has until October 2nd to scrape up the £2,000,000 plus VAT to acquire it and keep it in the country.

The objects consist of two roman marble figures of Celtic hounds, dated around the 2nd century AD. They are made of white marble, possibly north Italian white marble, but also possibly Greek (Thassian or Parian), exact provenance of marble cannot be easily surmised.

The male hound is seated upright with his head tilted upwards, wearing a studded collar, its body with a visibly defined ribcage, seated with its tail between his legs on a base.

The female Celtic hound is shown seated wearing a wide studded collar, the slender body naturalistically carved, with her right foreleg raised, her hips and left paw resting on an integral arch-shaped base. Her muzzle, ears, part of the neck and the lower half of the raised right foreleg bear signs of historic restoration (probably conducted in the 18th century).

The hounds were discovered on the grounds of the country villa of Emperor Antoninus Pius in Laurentum, about 17 miles outside of Rome. Located on the coast between Ostia and Lavinium, Laurentum was a site of great importance in the legendary history of Rome. This was the ancient capital of Latium, where Aeneas and the Trojan refugees landed and were welcomed with open arms and a marriageable daughter by King Latinus. By the late Republican era, the city itself was gone, but the Laurentine area was a popular location for the beachfront villas of the elite who could avoid the insalubrious surrounding marshland and enjoy the sea and game-filled forests. Pliny the Younger had a villa there which he describes effusively in a letter to his friend Gallus written around 100 A.D., a letter which has become one of the most important historical sources on the design and function of the Roman country villa and gardens.

Augustus had a large Laurentine estate literally two doors down from Pliny’s. It wasn’t just a cool seaside villa a few miles out of the city to him, but was also a symbolic link to his putative illustrious heritage as the Gens Julia claimed direct descent from Aeneas and Latinus’ daughter Lavinia. Later emperors expanded on the early imperial villa and used it often, particularly the Antonines.

The remains of what are believed to be this imperial villa were unearthed next to the medieval tower of Tor Paterno in 1795. The tower itself was destroyed by British shelling during the Napoleonic Wars in 1809, and the site today is part of the municipality of Ostia. In the 18th century Tor Paterno belonged to the Chigi family, and Prince Agostino III Chigi Albani Della Rovere followed in the footsteps of his father by excavating the site. As with most of the noble families who excavated their own properties, Agostino was on the hunt for spectacular sculptures to display in their private collections or to sell.

The greyhounds fell into the latter category and were sold to Dutch-British banker, author and collector Thomas Hope during his Grand Tour visit to Rome. That’s how they ended up in Britain where they remained in the Hope family until 1917 when they were sold to a private collector. His descendants put them under the hammer last year.

These aren’t the first exceptional Roman carvings from the Laurentine shore to be acquired by overseas buyers from UK sellers. The export license review system exposed an embarrassing loophole last year when the Metropolitan Museum of Art gleefully announced the arrival of an elaborately carved marble puteal (wellhead) that had been discovered at a site believed to be Pliny’s villa in 1797. Decorated with a rich reliefs depicting the stories of Narcissus and Echo and the abduction of Hylas by water nymphs, the ancient well cover was bought in 2019 from the collection of the Earls of Wemyss and March which had been a part of since the mid-19th century.

Featuring two cautionary tales about water from Greek mythology, the narrative relief seamlessly combines the legend of Narcissus and Echo with the tragic story of the abduction of Hylas by nymphs. Of the some 70 Roman marble wellheads with relief decoration known today, The Met’s is one of the finest and the only one whose iconography relates so directly to water.

“This puteal is the finest example of ancient Roman marble sculpture to enter The Met’s collection in well over half a century.” said Max Hollein, Director of the Museum. “The virtuosic carving and moving narrative are captivating, and we’re honored to introduce this exceptional object to our audiences.”

The archaeological context makes the puteal even more significant because Pliny actually wrote about the wells he used to supply the villa with fresh water in his letter to Gallus.

The convenience and charm of the situation of my villa have one drawback in that it contains no running water, but I draw my supply from wells or rather fountains, for they are situated at a high level. Indeed, it is one of the curious characteristics of the shore here that wherever you dig you find moisture ready to hand, and the water is quite fresh and not even brackish in the slightest degree, though the sea is so close by.

The Met’s gain was very much Britain’s loss, and the UK Arts Council was horrified that such an important piece had left the country with nary an attempt to bar export. Apparently the British Museum expert engaged to assess its cultural and artistic significance had decided it had been so heavily restored in the 18th century that it no longer qualified as “outstanding.” The Met’s curator disagrees, describing the 18th century restorations as “limited.” The Arts Council felt that the British Museum’s expert had not determined the object’s cultural significance according to the legally stipulated criteria, but instead focused on the price tag, noting in his report that it was a lost cause because it was unlikely that any UK institution would be able to raise the necessary funds. The Arts Council had to revise its procedures in the wake of the puteal affair.

Now, a year later, they appear to have learned their lesson as this time the Laurentine sculptures are getting the opposite treatment as the wellhead did, even though the female hound was extensively restored in the 18th century and the set come with a high price tag.

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