Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

December 12 saw the sale of
53 examples from the Rothschild collection at Sotheby’s in London. A few days later, December 16, saw Finarte-Semenzato (24-18.5% buyer’s premium inc VAT) of Milan offer 78 lots of cameos of roughly the same period as part of a much larger sale of mainly modern jewellery.

Sotheby’s offered the cameos first as individual lots (useful as a price guide), although the group was actually sold en bloc at £135,000.

This way of maximising the sale total was previewed on page 2 of Gazette 1618, December 13 and the sale itself reported in the London Selection pages in Gazette 1622, January 17.

The Milan disposal was prudently catalogued as 18th-19th century, although I suspect that, as with the Rothschild cameos, a very few were earlier and rarer. Only seven lots failed to find a new home, which is pretty good going in a field notoriously difficult to appraise. They went at a hammer total of €194,000 (£136,620) a very similar figure to the Rothschild cameos.

Sotheby’s group offered a third fewer examples but, since the Rothschild name might have given the London disposal a certain edge, its prices should be slightly discounted for comparative valuation purposes.

Given the similarity of taste displayed in these two separate offerings, the two sales collectively give us a current price guide.

The highest price achieved by the Finarte Semenzato dispersal was the €9000 (£6340) bid for grey and white chalcedony cameo (c.1800) of the Triumph of a Roman Emperor measured 13/4in (4.6cm) wide excluding the attractive brooch mount. It was estimated at €6500-7500.

This ratio of winning bid to estimate was pretty constant for most of the lots on offer, as is illustrated by two other particularly photogenic pieces from the sale, the c.1800 11/4in (3.5cm) cameo, above right, of white agate on a honey coloured ground and the 13/4in (4.7cm) rugged portrait of a Roman emperor above right.

The first, white agate, example showed what was described as an idealised helmeted warrior in a chased (English?) brooch mount. But surely it represents Minerva? Estimated at €1300-2000, it realised €1800 (£1270).

The Roman emperor cameo on a slate coloured ground with a yellowish-white image with orange highlights, was catalogued as 18th century. If asked, I could have lived with a 17th or even a 16th century attribution.

It was estimated at a measly €2500-3200 and made €5200 (£3660) so, just perhaps, my hypothesis is correct; in which case this too appears not expensive.

It seems to me that the cataloguing was cautious – perhaps Finarte Semenzato did not want to court controversy. That said, most cameos, maybe 80-90 per cent of them, are well known to be difficult to date.

Careful comparison with celebrated examples with old provenances, such as those in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna which are well published (albeit in hard-to-obtain) books does produce a pretty convincing attribution.

Nonetheless, it is a very difficult subject and it seems that the auctioneers were businesslike to be cautious.