Museum exhibitions, new collectors, new literature – and perhaps a sense that the market was undervalued – have prompted a spate of strong prices at auction topped in April when 40 cameos and intaglios formerly in the collection of Giorgio Sangiorgi (1887-1965) made $8.63m (£6.69m) at Christie’s New York. More than half were knocked down to the J Paul Getty Museum.
The return to form has been a slow burn. As Wartski’s Thomas Holman puts it, the once elevated status of glyphic art became “eroded by the proliferation of cheap reproductions – the poorer quality shell cameos and replicas in ceramic that became associated with old-fashioned Victorian taste”.
The dealership’s forthcoming exhibition Multum in Parvo: A Collection of Engraved Gems is aimed at recapturing some of the sense of wonder that has long accompanied the ancient craft.
More than 80 engraved gems built up by the dealership over several years are offered at the October 1-7 show – the first Wartski has staged since moving to St James’s last year. The offering includes some ancient gems (a talismanic sardonyx gem from the 2nd century is carved with a rooster and rat) but also those made by talented lapidaries from the 16th into the 19th century.
The collection includes two of the ‘missing’ Marlborough Gems – a ring carved from a single sapphire and engraved with an intaglio portrait of Faustina the Elder and a carved orange and white cameo of a bearded mask.
Both were among the collection of about 800 gems complied by George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, and later dispersed piecemeal by Christie’s. Today, the location of two-thirds of the gems is unknown, although they do occasionally appear on the market. One, an octagonal sapphire carved with the bust of a Roman emperor, sold for £62,000 at Woolley & Wallis in July.
“In our frantic modern world, these tiny and exquisite works of art are easy to miss,” Holman says. “My hope is that people will take a moment to see these extraordinary miniature masterpieces and appreciate that there is a great deal more to them than first meets the eye.” Prices range from £5000 to six figures with a catalogue also available for sale at the exhibition.