The scene cut to this intaglio is The Grief of Achilles Upon the Death of Patroclus after a lost work by the celebrated British gem cutter Nathaniel Marchant (1739-1816).
He based his composition on an incomplete ‘ancient’ cameo made famous by the German archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) which is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Marchant was invited to copy it and fill in the missing elements including the right-hand figure of a seated Achilles and the head of a woman in a Phrygian cap. He signed it Marchant F Romae.
Both the fragmentary cameo (now thought to be Renaissance after the antique) and Marchant’s sard intaglio (destroyed during the Second World War) were widely available in impressions. The British Museum has several including a plaster cast of Marchant’s intaglio and a James Tassie reproduction.
This gem, from the estate of Grice, was deemed one of the many copies. However, after selling at Aus$42,000 (£23,100) at the auction on July 8, there was at least a suggestion that it was closer to Marchant’s hand than the estimate of Aus$500-800 might have suggested.
Grice lived frugally in Brisbane – he never owned a car nor a TV – but was a polymath collector. Six years working in Rome helped focus his tastes for the Grand Tour mosaics and hardstone cameos and intaglios offered as the first 28 lots of the sale.
When Sotheby’s (25% buyer’s premium) online sale titled Small Wonders: Early Gems and Jewels closed on July 9, a virtuoso sardonyx cameo of the head of Medusa had reached £65,000 – 10 times its estimate.
The gem cutter was probably Luigi Saulini (1819-83), the maker of a near-identical cameo in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Saulini, the son of Tommaso Saulini (1793-1864) who specialised in hard stone and shell carving from a shop in the Via del Babuino in Rome, was active primarily in the 1860s-70s.
This 1½in (3.6cm) cameo in a gold mount was deemed a particularly beautiful example in excellent condition. It had been with Edinburgh jeweller Brook & Son c.1900.
The sale featured 79 lots. Considering the esoteric content of the sale, it may come as a pleasant surprise to learn that, according to Sotheby’s, 30% of bidders were aged under 40. A sign that this most traditional form of personal adornment is again officially cool.