Antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi explains what new collectors should look for when considering Egyptian bronzes — illustrated with pieces from the Resandro Collection, offered during Classic Week at Christie’s in London in December 2016
When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, the world witnessed a new wave of Egyptomania as artists, designers and collectors all fell under the spell of the beautiful artefacts that he unearthed. With their clean lines and exquisite decoration, Egyptian bronze sculptures continue to enchant the world today, whether at auction or in notable collections such as that of the British Museum.
The Resandro Collection is one of the world’s most renowned private collections of Egyptian art and includes many superlative examples of bronzes. They range from sculptures of deities including Isis and Osiris to striking statues of cats, bulls and fish, and the timeless beauty of these pieces is bound to inspire a new generation of collectors.
The beginning of the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia was marked by the rise of the Sumer civilisation, which also developed early writing systems and the first potter’s wheel. With the spread of war and trade, the technique of bronze casting soon reached Egypt and immediately made an impact on the tradition of sculpture, which had previously been dominated by hardstone and clay. The best Egyptian bronzes were produced between the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period — around the 7th century B.C. — while later dynasties through to the Ptolemaic Period (when the Greeks ruled over Egypt) show a rise in mass production and a drop in craftsmanship.
Most extant bronzes tend to represent deities and were designed to be worshipped in a temple or placed in a tomb for the protection of the deceased. Some were more common than others. Isis, the goddess of magic and nature, is widely represented in Egyptian iconography as the archetypal mother figure. Married to her brother Osiris, the god of the afterlife, she is often depicted suckling her son Horus, giving her significance as a figure of protection and fertility.
Cat figures are also prominent in collections of Egyptian bronzes. They were inspired by the cult of the cat-headed Bastet, goddess of warfare as well as protector against contagious diseases and evil spirits. The Egyptians may have been one of the first cultures to domesticate cats, and the animals soon became widely worshipped as a consequence of their association with Bastet and for their value in pest control.
Some Egyptian bronzes can be just 5 or 6 cm high, but the Resandro collection includes very rare larger examples around 40 or 50 cm high. Larger ancient objects are often considered more valuable because they are less likely to survive long periods out of the ground. Size is especially important with bronzes because it is a very expensive material to begin with.
Bronze — an alloy of copper and tin — was considered a superior metal for casting statuary because it stayed liquid for longer than copper when being poured into a mould. This resulted in stronger pieces. It’s remarkable to think that these works are made using a method still employed in the creation of bronze sculptures today — the lost wax process. A model was first made in wax, which was then encased in clay and exposed to heat in order to melt the wax and bake the clay. The resulting mould would be filled with molten bronze, and once cooled the clay would be smashed to reveal the solid sculpture inside. The most prized pieces were also inlaid with silver or gold to create a beautiful contrast, highlighting the eyes or providing details in the hairpiece or jewellery.
In 2013, Christie’s New York sold a majestic life-size bronze cat from the Ptolemaic Period (3rd century B.C.) for more than $2 million. Smaller statuettes of popular figures such as Osiris, however, can sell for as little as £500 or £1,000, since they were made in larger quantities toward the end of the Late Period. A minimum of £2,000 is considered a reasonable amount to spend on a medium-sized piece of good quality. The most important thing to remember, of course, is to buy the best that your budget allows.
Provenance is important in all fields of collecting, and particularly with Egyptian bronzes. It is essential to check whether the piece you are interested in was extracted from the ground and exported from Egypt before 1983, when the country passed a law forbidding artefacts to be removed from its borders. A history of important collectors is also desirable, as in the Resandro Collection, within which many pieces boast prestigious provenance as well as having appeared in numerous exhibitions and publications. These factors help to ensure that an object retains its value and will remain appealing to future generations of collectors.
One of the most important things to look out for when considering a piece is any sign of bronze disease, a form of decay which attacks the metal and can seriously damage a work of art. Bronze disease manifests itself in powdery verdigris patches on the surface and can be very expensive to treat. It is also important to note that the disease can infect other bronze objects, so affected pieces must be kept sealed and separate from the rest of a collection.
Another thing to look out for are signs of restoration. Most bronzes will be restored with a form of resin that mimics the colour of the patina. Some restorers are better than others and it can be difficult to spot the repairs or additions. One trick is to feel, either with your hands or your lips — or indeed any other heat-sensitive part of your body — for the variation in temperature between different parts. As a metal, bronze is naturally cold. Resin is a form of plastic, and you should be able to detect that it feels warmer.
The high demand for antiquities over the centuries has led to a longstanding trade in fakes. These will often have an artificial patina, with an unusual uniformity and brighter green hue. On ancient pieces the patina will generally be uneven in colour, ranging from dark green to lighter green patches. Egyptian bronzes in particular often have dark red patches because of the composition of the bronze alloy, which contains cuprite. It’s also important to remember that the Egyptians always cast their sculptures whole, while modern fakes will often have filed down lines on their sides where two halves have been joined — it is cheaper and easier to cast something in two parts.
The influence of ancient Egyptian artefacts on the fine and decorative arts can be seen in the designs of the Art Nouveau movement, which coincided with the boom of archaeology in the 19th century. The elegant lines, decorative elements and careful proportions of Egyptian art inspired Art Nouveau artists. But it didn’t stop there. Egyptomania carried on throughout the 20th century, notably with Elizabeth Taylor’s unforgettable portrayal of Cleopatra in the movie of the same name in 1963. In recent times, artists such as Nancy Spero and Adam Henein have made clear reference to Egyptian art in their work.
Most of the big European collections, like those in the British Museum and the Louvre, boast superlative examples of Egyptian bronzes. These are mesmerising objects, especially once you start to look closely at the detail. Ancient Egyptian art, in fact, offers the kind of timeless beauty that never goes out of fashion.