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