Through glass darkly

Ro­man glass­ware of all shapes and sizes in­trigues and there will be much to de­light at the au­tumn Dec­o­ra­tive Fair

Country Life Every Week - - Art Market -

NCE, held some feet above the ground in a crack in the trunk of an old Cre­tan olive tree, I found what I be­lieved, per­haps fondly, to be a frag­ment of iri­des­cent Ro­man glass. It could have been pushed up from the earth and en­gorged by the seedling, but, then again, it could well have been far more re­cent a shard than sug­gested by the worn sur­face and iri­des­cence.

I have long thought that Ro­man glass would be a very sat­is­fy­ing col­lect­ing field, aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing, all the more so be­cause, of­ten a lit­tle wonky, it is in good sup­ply, but at the same time not so com­mon as to spoil the chase, and it is very var­ied in shapes, colours and func­tions. When I first did noth­ing about it, much Ro­man glass was also com­par­a­tively cheap. Now it is

Oless so, but much is still within reach. Even so, that lit­tle tree­shard is the only thing of the kind that I pos­sess. In the July an­tiq­ui­ties sale at Bon­hams there was a small col­lec­tion—18 pieces—that had been as­sem­bled since the early 1990s. The anony­mous gen­tle­man had mostly bought at New York and Lon­don auc­tions, but also from the now closed Hadji Baba gallery in May­fair. Thir­teen lots sold; from the few pur­chase prices that I have been able to trace, this col­lec­tor is un­likely to have turned much of a profit, but he should have had con­sid­er­able en­joy­ment. Among the most com­monly found are lit­tle pots, jars or flasks, var­i­ously known as ary­bal­loi, al­abas­troi, bal­samari or unguen­taria, which are as­sumed to have held oil, cos­met­ics and medicines. They were made across the Clas­si­cal world and are usu­ally found on sec­u­lar sites and in ceme­ter­ies, al­though some were pos­si­bly also used for vo­tive pur­poses. An at­trac­tive ex­am­ple here was a Greek core-formed ary­bal­los dat­ing from the late 6th or early 5th cen­tury (Fig 2). The 21 ∕3in-high spher­i­cal cobalt­blue body and neck were dec­o­rated with yel­low and turquoise stripes and zigzags. This had been bought in New York in 2002 at a ham­mer price of $5,378; it now sold for £5,250. There were a num­ber of less usual things, such as a 4¾in-high green and light-pur­ple lo­tus-bud beaker made in the east­ern Mediter­ranean re­gion dur­ing the 1st cen­tury which sold for £11,250 (Fig 3), and a 15¼in­high pale-bluish-green dou­ble bal­samar­ium with an ex­tra­or­di­nary lat­tice­work han­dle (Fig 1). It is ex­tra­or­di­nary that some­thing so frag­ile could have sur­vived.

It was bought for $13,145 in 2002, of­fered for sale in 2011 but bought in and, in July, sold for £12,500. Two large jugs, stand­ing 12 ¾in and 115 ∕8in, did best, both sell­ing at their top es­ti­mates. They were again from the east­ern Mediter­ranean, but later, around 400AD. The first, with a pear-shaped yel­low body, reached £15,000 (Fig 4), and the sec­ond, with an ovoid olive-green body, £20,000.

In Au­gust, three un­dated and lightly cat­a­logued Ro­man glass pots (Fig 5), the largest 6in high, turned up in a sale at Mal­lams, Ox­ford, where they made £480. Two were iri­des­cent green, the third dec­o­rated with a flow­ing red and white pat­tern.


Fig 3: Lo­tus-bud beaker from the 1st cen­tury £11,250 Fig 4: East­ern Mediter­ranean pear-shaped jug. £15,000

Fig 1 above: Dou­ble £12.500. Fig 2 be­low: Greek ary­bal­los from the 5th or 6th cen­tury £5,250

Fig 5: Un­dated Ro­man glass pots. £480 for all three

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