As BBC cameras rolled for live television, Duke’s of Dorchester sold three pieces of purportedly ancient gold for a total of £56,000 on June 5. The consignment, rejected by at least one major London auction house before Duke’s accepted them, has been the source of much opinion since their sale was announced in late May.
They were offered for sale by John Webber, the grandson of
Taunton scrap metal dealer William Sparks, who had acquired the
items from different sources during the 1930s or early 1940s.
The three disparate pieces are seemingly without parallel in
ancient metalwork, and laboratory tests undertaken by Oxford
University failed to instill full confidence in either the dealing
or the academic community. Mr Webber initially took the items to
the British Museum who refused to pass judgment on them.
The principal item was a 5 1/2in (14 cm) high Janus cup
suggested to be Archaemenid and dateable to the 3rd or 4th century
BC. Metal analysis undertaken by Oxford Materials Characterisation
Services of Oxford University concluded that the method of
manufacture and the composition of the gold were consistent with
Archaemenid goldsmithing, although it also found traces of cadmium,
an element only identified in 1817.
While cadmium does exist naturally in minerals, it was not known
to have been used in the solder on man-made metal objects until the
Duke's, who estimated it might fetch £50,000-100,000, catalogued
the cup without committing to an attribution. Partner Guy Schwinge
pointed to this as he began the sale, saying: "Please note the
description, and that goes for all of these lots."
On a day when the principal dealers in the field were otherwise
occupied, no telephones were booked and the cup sold to a private
collector from Somerset at £50,000 (plus 19.5 per cent buyer's
He left the room swiftly after purchasing the cup and a
preceding lot, a 2 3/4in (7cm) diameter "Hellenistic" gold mount,
repoussé decorated with a bearded male figure. Again, it sold at
the lower end of a £1000-2000 estimate.
A gold spoon with a fluted oval bowl centered by a profile
portrait bust and a stem decorated with lions pursuing an antelope
sold to a commission bidder at its low estimate of £5000. No date
was given for the spoon but the catalogue ventured the design was
"redolent of Roman imperial metalwork emanating from the Eastern
Mediterranean, or North Africa".
Following the sale, Mr Schwinge told ATG: "We had prepared
ourselves for the gold not to sell in light of the differing
opinions cast before the sale, but we decided to leave it to the
market to decide and are delighted that the items sold."