Catalogued as ‘19th century Revivalist’ and ‘possibly depicting Augustus’, the 18ct gold ring was offered at Fellows’ Fine Jewellery sale on April 13 with an estimate of £150-200. However, after a 17-minute bidding battle with interest online and on the phones, a telephone bidder secured it for a £90,000 hammer price (£117,000 including fees).
It came from a UK consignor along with a group of other, mainly gold, jewellery.
If indeed it does depict the first Roman Emperor Augustus (63BC-AD14), it could be one of the ‘lost’ gems of the collection of George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough (1739-1817) according to dealers contacted by ATG. He had the largest and most important assemblage of engraved gems in the 18th century.
The group resided at Blenheim Palace until the whole collection was sold by the 6th Duke at Christie, Manson & Woods in 1875 to mining magnate David Bromilow (1809-98) of Bitteswell Hall, Leicestershire for £35,000. It was then dispersed piecemeal by Christie’s in 1899 for almost exactly the same total sum.
The Marlborough collection is catalogued in the Beazley archive in Oxford which comprises impressions and electrotype copies of nearly every Marlborough gem alongside cataloguer’s notes. This archive was published as The Marlborough Gems: Formerly at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire in 2009.
The garnet intaglio at Fellows could be number 545 which is described in the database as ‘Head of Augustus?’ but has no image and its whereabouts is unknown.
Recent auction examples
Nearly two thirds of the gems have still not been located, but examples do emerge at auction. In 2019 two gems resurfaced: a sard intaglio ring thought to depict the Roman general Mark Anthony (£36,000 at Cheffins) and a Renaissance period sapphire intaglio carved with the bust of Julius Caesar (£62,000 at Woolley & Wallis).
Other gems from the collection on the market recently included a Nathaniel Marchant intaglio ring sold for £48,000 at Christie’s in June 2021 while dealer Les Enluminures’ New York exhibition (running until May 9) is solely focused on a c.1600 lion’s head gem carved in cat’s eye which has an asking price of $85,000.
The garnet ring at Fellows was one of 11 intaglios sold at the auction. Another highlight was a carnelian fob sold at £9900 which will be covered in a future issue.