An exceptional find – a Roman white marble sarcophagus found in a Dorset garden – turned out to be something more of a rediscovery for Duke’s of Dorchester.
In conversation with the owner,
auctioneer Guy Schwinge discovered the family had acquired the
sarcophagus almost 100 years ago at the auction of the collection
of Sir John Charles Robinson at Newton Manor in Swanage. It
emerged, too, that the auctioneer in 1913 had been none other than
Hy. Duke & Son.
Born in Nottingham, Sir John Charles
Robinson (1824-1913) was one of the greatest connoisseurs of his
age: appointed Queen Victoria's Surveyor of Pictures and, in 1852,
the first Superintendent of the Art Collections at the South
Kensington Museum (better known as the V&A), where he was
primarily responsible for building the collections of ancient and
His journals are held by the Ashmolean
The decoration to the sarcophagus,
measuring 7ft 11in (2.41m) wide, comprises a pedimented doorway,
the door slightly ajar, flanked by boldly carved swags of laurel
tied with ribbon.
Academic opinion has it that the
quality of the carving (deemed too fine to be Romano-British)
suggests that it was made in Italy for a wealthy individual,
probably in the late 2nd or early 3rd century. The simply hewn,
undecorated back indicates the sarcophagus once formed part of a
larger high-status monument - an independent mausoleum where the
tomb was placed against a wall.
No information has surfaced as to
where Robinson acquired it (it was probably purchased during one of
the many seasons he spent travelling for the museum in Italy and
Spain), but a provenance with a clear line of ownership for over a
century was nonetheless one of its many commercial
Despite the weathered surface and
areas of damage and crude repair, on September 28 three telephone
bidders competed for several minutes before one of them secured it
with a bid of £80,000 (plus 19.5% buyer's premium).