Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Auction: Roman statue of purple porphyry


I've added this only because the statue in question was made from a stone exclusively available from the Eastern Desert of Egypt and quarried from there during the Roman period. The settlement built to accompany the site was called Mons Porphyrites and is now in ruins. There are still outcrops of the stone, a remarkable shade of purple with white speckles.

On June 4, Christie’s New York is pleased to offer an exquisite Roman statue of the goddess Tyche (estimate on request). Standing 31 ½ inches high, and executed in the rarest of materials: porphyry. The statue was formerly in the private collection of Dr. Elie Borowski, collector and connoisseur of ancient art, who acquired it in 1967. It was on loan to the sculpture museum Liebighaus in Frankfurt, Germany from 1980-1986, and later exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto from 1986-1991.

“This is the most spectacular and beautiful sculpture that I have ever had the pleasure to work with,” says G. Max Bernheimer, International Head of the Antiquities department. “The fact that it’s still in impeccable condition, makes it all the more exceptional.”

Porphyry was highly regarded for its color, since purple was symbolic of high rank and authority. The stone was quarried in Egypt’s eastern desert, near Mons Porphyrites, known today as Gebel Kokham. The raw material was transported overland to Qena, ancient Kainopolis, on the Nile, and then by boat north to Alexandria and then on to Rome. During the Roman Period, the quarries were traditionally understood to have been under the direct control of the emperor. The stone was only sporadically used during the 1st Century A.D., reaching its first peak of use during the reigns of the emperors Trajan 98-117 A.D. and Hadrian 117-138 A.D. and again in the 4th Century. It was used for statuary, architectural elements including columns and floor paving, decorative urns and basins, and for imperial sarcophagi. Most porphyry statuary, as with the present example, was finished as a composite work of art, with the head, hands and feet made from a contrasting material, usually white marble.

See the above page for more details and a photograph of the statue.

If you want to find out more about this remarkable stone and the quarrying of it, there's a summary and a set of references on the Mons Porphyrites section on my Eastern Desert site.


David Gill said...

See also my comments on this piece over at

Penny Auction Online said...

I am an auction lover. So every news related to the auction makes me very happy. Thanks for keeping us updated.