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Collectors' focus.

The market for Roman mosaics is small but steady, with fragments available from 10,000 [pounds sterling]. Collectors tend to prize the decorative quality of pieces more highly than their date, and following disputes over illegal excavation, provenance is key.

Mosaics are one of the most evocative and recognisable art forms of antiquity. Invented in the Hellenistic period, they became widespread from the 2nd century and continued to be produced in workshops throughout the Roman Empire well into late antiquity. Ferdinando I de' Medici had such a passion for Roman and Byzantine mosaics that in 1588 he set up the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence to revive the art. By the 18th century, antique mosaics had become a focus of trade for both Grand Tourists and collectors such as Sir William Hamilton. In 1842, the contents of Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole's 'little gothic castle' on the banks of the Thames at Twickenham were sold. The sale catalogue lists 'A magnificent table of SARACEN MOSAIC, perfectly unique and of most extraordinary effect', one of two lots sent to Walpole from Rome by Hamilton.

Whether or not this 'SARACEN' mosaic was strictly Roman, it illustrates both the delights and dangers of the trade. Firstly, mosaics are unwieldy, heavy and require some care and ingenuity to display--hence the 'finely carved antique ebony frame' supporting Walpole's. Secondly, since most were created for specific architectural contexts, they are bound into a history of excavation that dates back at least 200 years. Determining therefore what may or may not be ethically traded has become increasingly difficult for both dealers and auction houses on the one hand, and museums and private collectors on the other. Attention was drawn to this issue in particular in 2000, when debates surrounding the flooding of the ancient site of Zeugma in Turkey exposed the extent of both ancient and modern looting. The decision taken by Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) in December 2012 to voluntarily return the Orpheus Mosaic to Turkey reflects this heightened concern. It was looted in the 1990s from near Edessa, and bought by the DMA at Christie's New York in 1999. Following its return, the museum's director Maxwell L. Anderson stated: 'The problems of illegal excavation and the illicit import of cultural property require the consideration of new models of co-operation among institutions.'

However, for the Roman mosaics with solid provenance, where export was more than 50 years ago, there is a steady if small market. As Jean-David Cahn of Cahn AG in Basel puts it: 'If you look at the auction sales, there are always one or two and they always sell.' While the majority find a buyer, according to Madeleine Perridge, head of antiquities at Bonhams, for 'around 10,000 [pounds sterling] for a decent animal head, less for a decorative border or smaller fragment', occasional pieces can reach much higher prices. In June 2007 at Sotheby's New York, a Roman mosaic emblema panel with fishermen, dated to the early 4th century, achieved an astonishing $510,000--more than ten times the middle estimate of $40,000-$60,000. That same year a more confidently estimated Roman mosaic panel, featuring a triumphal Bacchic procession, dated to the mid 2nd century and probably from North Africa, fetched $277,000 (estimate $200,000- $300,000) at Christie's New York.

This was the highest point of the market, before conflict in the Middle and Near East heightened anxiety about illegal excavation. Laetitia Delaloye at Christie's London reports subsequent price adjustment, but notes that animal heads and human figures still fetch a premium, citing the sale in New York in 2010 of a Roman mosaic panel from the 4th or 5th century. Estimated at $30,000-$50,000 and featuring a collection of European and African animals, it sold for $98,500. She remarks that the place of origin and date is of less concern to collectors than decorative value and provenance. 'Buyers might not even be antiquities collectors,' she adds. Perridge confirms that the majority of mosaics that come to auction date from the late Roman period, when wealth spread across the Empire, encouraging the production of mosaics in territories from Britain to Asia Minor and North Africa. 'They were produced for decorative purposes and are bought for that purpose today,' she remarks. Both specialists agree that collectors are focused in Europe and North America.

According to London dealer Rupert Wace, the earlier pieces, from the late Hellenistic/early Roman period (1st century BC), are most highly sought after. These were made with much smaller tesserae, which allowed for a more subtle rendering of pictorial detail. He currently has available a fragment with two birds, a cockerel and possibly a quail, dated 1st century BC-1st century AD (14,000 [pounds sterling]; Fig. 2). Wace notes: 'This type of fine work, executed on transportable tablets that could be used in larger pavements of neutral ground or with geometric decoration, was mostly made in Alexandria.' Roman interpretations of Egyptian scenes--so-called 'Nilotic' scenes--were especially popular.

Michael Hedqvist of Phoenix Ancient Art confirms this view: 'Mosaic making reached a pinnacle in 1st-century Rome, with a technique known as opus vermiculatum or micromosaic.' While Antioch in Turkey was a major centre of mosaic art, he suggests that 'the best examples of such production are found in Rome and Naples [from Pompei]. In today's market, those are virtually impossible to find.' Serena Ede, at Charles Ede Ltd, also reports that 'good, genuine, well-provenanced Roman mosaics are hard to find'. While the decorative market is very strong in the US, there are very few dedicated solo mosaic collectors, she says.

Mark Merrony is a classical archaeologist and director of Ariadne Galleries in London and New York. He remarks that collectors are, on the whole, interested in the decorative and historical value of panels. It is possible to date works by the size of the tesserae and their cubic density, and regional differences in style may also be discerned. He especially likes Tunisian mosaics from the 2nd and 3rd century, which have 'lots of marine scenes and gladiatorial combat with animals', as well as 'beautiful floral schemes and jazzy border patterns'. Ariadne Galleries currently has a mosaic panel of Tethys dated to the early fourth century (Fig. 1).

Cahn is another passionate advocate of mosaics. While he says that the significant body of research built up over the last 50 years has little influence on market value, collectors do differentiate on artistic grounds between the very rare micromosaics and the later, cruder, decorative pieces. He currently has a charming fragment of Eros riding an amphora surrounded by fish (2nd-3rd century) for 32,000 [euro] (Fig. 3). Cahn warns that provenance is key: 'There are mosaics flying around of a very baroque recognisable style, which Turkey claims back. You should not handle these things.'
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Author:Crichton-Miller, Emma
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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