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Met Stretches to Buy Roman Head It Once Exhibited (plus Sotheby’s Big Oops!)

Marble head of Zeus Ammon, Roman Imperial, c. 120-160 A.D., bought yesterday at Sotheby’s by Metropolitan Museum for $3.55 million (presale estimate: $800,000-$1.2 million)

Through prior display in its own galleries, the Metropolitan Museum may have increased the price it had to pay last night at Sotheby’s for the Roman Imperial head (above) from the collection of Dodie Rosekrans, the San Francisco-area socialite and arts patron who died a year ago.

The evening auction of antiquities also occasioned a bizarre turn of events, when the astonishing $3.72 million that Sotheby’s last night said had been paid for an Egyptian basalt head of a king, Early Ptolemaic Period, c. 304-200 B.C. (also from the Rosekrans Collection), turned out to be too good to be true. In an e-mail from its press department last night, Sotheby’s exulted that the Egyptian head, estimated at only $100,000-150,000, had “sold to an online bidder,” making it “the highest price paid by an online bidder
in a live auction at Sotheby’s”…

…or maybe not. Today Sotheby’s amended its pricelist, downsizing the final price for the Egyptian head from $3.72 million to a mere $392,500. Spokesperson Lauren Gioia told me this was “merely a sale-system error. The lot was purchased by the online bidder for $392,500” (who may have been astounded to learn about his megabucks “purchase” in the post-sale announcement). At this writing, the realized price has not yet been corrected in Sotheby’s online catalogue entry for the piece.

But back to the Met: According to Sotheby’s catalogue entry for the 19-inch high marble head of Zeus Ammon, it was exhibited by the Met from March 2007 to April 2008. The Met’s imprimatur might help to account for its more than doubling the auction house’s $800,000-$1.2 million presale estimate of hammer price. It was knocked down to the Met for $3.1 million, for a final total of $3.55 million with buyer’s premium.

In June 2007 the Met stretched even more above Sotheby’s estimate for an antiquity, when it paid $3.18 million for one of many Albright-Knox Gallery deaccessions—the Elamite (southeastern Iran) copper figure of a horned hero, ca. 3000-2800 B.C., estimated at a mere $150,000 to $250,000.

There are no worries about the Zeus head’s running afoul of the UNESCO Convention restricting the importation of cultural property leaving its country of origin after 1970. That’s because, according to Sotheby’s catalogue entry: “The head was recorded as being on the art market in Rome in 1931” and was donated in 1954 by a subsequent owner to the Art League of Daytona Beach (which later sold it).

But the Metropolitan Museum has in the last few years acquired some nine objects, posted on the object registry of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which since 2008 has listed museum acquisitions for which information is lacking as to whether ownership history conforms to the 1970 rule. The most recent of these Met acquisitions is a head of Antinoos, Roman, c. 130-138 A.D., received by gift in 2010.

Perhaps the most striking of the works posted by the Met on AAMD’s registry for antiquities with murky pre-1970 provenance is a rare, over life-size Greek bronze statue of a man, c. mid-2nd to 1st century B.C. It was a partial gift in 2001 from Robert and Renée Belfer, who gave the remainder in 2010. They bought it from the controversial Phoenix Ancient Art in the same year that they partially donated it to the Met.

Here’s my photo of this beautifully modeled Greek bronze, installed just inside the entrance to the museum’s Leon Levy and Shelby White Court:


Here‘s the Met’s much better photograph of that statue on its website.

But the biggest and by far most surprising price paid yesterday at Sotheby’s antiquities auction was the $19.12 million from an anonymous buyer for a Roman Imperial marble of Leda and the Swan, c. 2nd century A.D.:


According to Sotheby’s catalogue entry, this sculpture was rediscovered only last year. It had been estimated to bring only $2-3 million.

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