Antiques: Take a Lesson from This Kind Emperor; Richard Edmonds Believes Downing Street Should Buy the Carved Marble Portrait Head of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius Which Is Coming Up at Auction in New York
Byline: Richard Edmonds
Should you happen to be country house visiting this summer, you may well come across galleries filled with Greek and Roman statues - many of them marble.
There is an obvious historic connection here, linking us back to previous centuries when British collectors and connoisseurs assembled some of the finest collections of classic antiquities outside Rome at a time when collecting and displaying these things was very much the in thing.
The galleries created by a spendthrift nobility in their great houses (now mostly owned by the National Trust or English Heritage) contained spectacular collections of statuary, vases, bronzes, prints and drawings, carved gems and Roman mosaics.
Occasionally these wonderful things surface in the sale rooms in London and it is likely that nowadays they may well be rehoused in Australia or America since such is the way of today's whimsical, money-driven society where wealth is no longer the privilege of the few in Britain.
Sotheby's will be selling antiquities next week in New York, a city that is nowadays nearby on your local, friendly website and the selection of lots to be offered - 247 of them in all - is mouthwatering. They range from ancient Egyptian sarcophagi in which mummies once lay, to bronze figures of the Egyptian gods, granite sphinxes, stunningly lovely alabaster bowls with the dust of antiquity upon them, to Greek and Roman mosaics with lots of those turquoise-blue ushabtis - the tiny figures no bigger than your little finger which were once wrapped with the mummy to ensure the soul of the deceased had a safe passage to the next world.
The star of the show is the carved marble portrait head of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, adopted son of the emperor Hadrian, a rather nice, slightly introverted, man according to ancient reports, steeped in Greek philosophy and culture more than the arts of war.
Marcus Aurelius, Antoninus's adopted son, loved his father and he spoke of him as a moral and philosophical example whose teachings he was proud to follow.
A philosopher himself, Marcus Aurelius in one of his meditations said of his father: 'He was always equal to an occasion and had an ever-watchful eye to the needs of the Empire, prudently conserving its resources and putting up with the criticism that resulted.
'Before his gods he was not superstitious, and before his fellow men he never stooped to bid for popularity or to woo the masses, but pursued his own calm and steady way.'
When you realise this just and compassionate man introduced new legal rulings to protect slaves against random cruelty and indecent abuse, you realise just what lies behind this wonderful marble portrait of Antoninus Pius which Sotheby's will offer on June 12 for pounds 200,000-pounds 300,000.
To my mind, it should be purchased by the British Government and placed in a prominent position in No 10 - surely as a reminder of how political dignity once meant something.
But once upon a time - in the 18th century to be exact, you might have found just such a marvellous Roman bust on offer in Rome, a city where the antiquarian trade has always thrived and in the 18th century swallowed up innocent young men there on the Grand Tour.
The Pleasures of Antiquity by Jonathan Scott (Yale: pounds 40) is a marvellous way of going on the Grant Tour without ever leaving your armchair.
The first great collectors, as Mr Scott tells us so expertly, came into focus in earlier centuries. One of them was Henry, Prince of Wales the son of that meddling old spendthrift, James lst. Henry died in very mysterious circumstances and some suggest that James engineered it. But by the time he was 16 Henry was already acquiring fine paintings, medals, gems and coins. Few 16-year-olds today could claim to know much more beyond the text message on their mobile phones.
But people of wealth at that time also collected cameos and carved gems and Lord Arendel, who features largely in Jonathan Scott's superb book, also imported antique marble statues from Italy in a big way for his house in London. …