The packed auction room at Sotheby's in New York was filled with feverish anticipation when, on June 7, 2007, assistants wearing white gloves rolled a delicate bronze statue about a meter (39 inches) tall into the room. According to the auction catalog, the bronze sculpture, titled "Artemis and the Stag," was a depiction of the Roman goddess of the hunt.
The sculpture was of a young girl with shining eyes, the folds of her knee-length robe draped suggestively over her body. A spokesman for the auction house raved about the sculpture, calling it "among the most beautiful works of art surviving from antiquity." The masterpiece promptly set off a vigorous bidding war.
A man from the sheikdom of Qatar offered the first bid, and an unknown man wearing a suit promptly countered with a higher bid. After that the bidding went up in $100,000 (€69,000) increments with each wave of a hand. When the duel stalled at $12 million, a new bidder seated at the rear of the room suddenly joined the fray.
The auctioneer's hammer finally came down with a bang at $25.5 million ($28.6 million, including the Sotheby's fee). The sculpture went to Giuseppe Eskenazi, a 68-year-old London art dealer, who promptly had the valuable piece flown to mainland Europe for his unidentified client.
It was the highest price every paid for a Roman sculpture. Even Sotheby's called the sale "absolutely astonishing."
But the new owner, rumored to be a Russian, could soon be disappointed. In a report SPIEGEL has obtained, Stefan Lehmann, an archeologist from the eastern German city of Halle, raises doubts about the piece. He is troubled by the "unexpressive face and seemingly perfect condition" of the sculpture. At first glance, writes Lehmann, the sculpture reminds him of a "classical work from the period around 1800."
Josef Floren, the German author of a handbook titled "The Greek Sculpture," is also skeptical. The "box-shaped base" on which the goddess is standing seems "modern." Floren is also perplexed by the clothing the young woman is wearing. "Something resembling a shawl or a veil is draped across her shoulders. No one in Rome walked around like that."
The rest of the article is a good read, of course. In any event, the face of this particular Artemis has always struck me as looking more 'Victorian' (for want of a better word) than Hellenistic and I think the same about the Belvedere Apollo (which is obviously pre-Victorian, but I don't think it's ancient). The 'hand gestures' of the Artemis also have always seemed odd to me. The Artemis was apparently found at an Italian construction site in the 1920s, we are told, and made its way to Buffalo in 1953 apparently through some very clear and above-the-board transactions.
Now something's just popped into my head and I need to write it down before I forget it. Does anyone else see the similarity between the hair and face of the Artemis and the Stag (the best photo I can find is this one) and the Apollo Sauroktonos lurking in the back rooms of the Cleveland Museum of Art? It might be just me, but the hand fragment also strikes me as 'in the same vein' (although not identical). An item in the Cleveland Plain Dealer gives the provenance (we are told) story:
The museum first learned about the Apollo in April 2003, when Bennett visited the Phoenix gallery in Geneva. Impressed, he called Reid, who asked that the Apollo be sent to Cleveland for what turned out to be a year of scrutiny.
Bennett said the gallery refused to tell him from whom it had bought the work. And while the gallery provided photographs of the sculpture undergoing a restoration recently, the dealers told the curator they didn't know who did the work.
Instead, the gallery referred Bennett to Walter, who said the work had been in the collection of his family since the early 1930s, on an estate in Lausitz, a region east of Dresden.
The communist government of East Germany confiscated the estate after World War II. Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, Walter filed a successful claim to repossess it. He said he found the Apollo lying in pieces on the floor of a manor house, in 1993 or 1994, according to Bennett.
In 1994, the lawyer showed the sculpture to Lucia Marinescu, a Romanian scholar. But her response apparently did nothing to convince Walter to keep the work.
Walter told Bennett and Reid that he sold the piece later in 1994 to a Dutch art dealer for 1,600 Deutschmarks, or $1,250 in 2004 dollars, thinking it was an 18th- or 19th-century garden ornament.
Walter also told the museum he couldn't remember the dealer's name, and that he has no receipt.
Marinescu lectured about the sculpture at an international conference on ancient bronzes, held in Bucharest in May 2003. That was a month after the sculpture was shipped from Geneva to Cleveland.
Bennett said Marinescu hasn't shared with the museum the photographs she took during her 1994 visit to Walter. Through an interpreter, Marinescu declined to be interviewed.
The museum believes that the Apollo changed hands several times while moving from Germany to the Netherlands and Switzerland. But there's no paper trail.
Of course, this Apollo is one which is being claimed by Greece and also by Italy. Interesting, though, that both surface, maybe, between the wars ... one thinks of Alceo Dossena, but I've never seen any of his fakes on the scale of these pieces. Continuing the idle speculation, I wonder how many ancient fakes have made it to the market via Nazi looting in WWII ...