Update: Squawk! The ancient Roman ring carved with an Indian Ringneck parrot sold for $87,000–almost six times its high estimate.
What you see: An ancient Roman ring featuring a parrot engraved on a green chalcedony stone. Christie’s estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: G. Max Bernheimer, senior vice president and international specialist head of antiquities at Christie’s.
When did engraved gems and jewelry featuring engraved gems start appearing in the historical record? In the Near East, they go back to the fourth millennium. In the Greek world, you don’t get them until the Bronze Age. At the end of the Bronze Age in 1200 B.C., there’s a gap until the late Geometric period in Greece. Seemingly with contact with the Near East, hard stones [appear] in the sixth century B.C. From there, there’s continuous usage to medieval Europe, and the context is never lost.
Is the parrot on the green chalcedony an intaglio or a cameo style of engraving? It’s an intaglio, which means it’s carved in the negative with the idea that it will be impressed into malleable material such as clay or wax, and an image will be left behind in relief. Cameos didn’t come into existence until the Hellenistic period of Alexander the Great. Cameos don’t have any function except for decoration or propaganda.
Is the stone in the ancient Roman ring in its original mount? It is. I would say for every hundred stones I might see, I find one or two in their original settings. In antiquity, they used three possible settings for finger rings: gold, silver, or bronze. Gold survives very well. Some engraved gems pop out of rings also. During excavations of Roman baths, [archeologists] have found dozens and dozens in the drains, because that’s where they ended up.
Now I’m thinking of all the stories I’ve heard about engagement rings being lost down the kitchen sink or the bathtub… There’s nothing new under the sun.
Are ancient Roman rings with gold settings more likely to survive intact? There’s a much higher possibility for them to survive because of their gold.
How often do you see birds portrayed on ancient Roman rings? Animals are always a popular subject. As for parrots, there are quite a few out there. Parrots are pretty popular. They were portrayed decoratively on mosaic floors, in reliefs, and on sculptures–they weren’t a rare sight. Having said that, this is only the second one I’ve seen on the market.
I understand that the engraving on this green chalcedony is so precise, we can identify the species of parrot as an Indian Ringneck. How often do you come across an ancient Roman ring with an engraved gemstone that has that level of accuracy in its portrayal? I’d say it’s a unique thing to be able to identify the species of bird that precisely.
What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult it would have been to engrave the image of the parrot into the green chalcedony? The carver probably used a kick wheel, which is similar to a potter’s wheel, or a bow and drill. It’s like a bow and arrow bow. There’s a string that coils around the bow, and the bow moves back and forth, causing the drill to spin. As for how they would have carved a hard stone with iron tools when iron is softer than quartz–they used [applied] powdered emery, which has a rating of eight, harder than quartz.
Do we see evidence of how the carver made use of their tools? If you blow up the image, you can see little blobs in the feet, and in where the legs join the feathered portion of the legs. That’s the shape of the drill that was used. [If you have trouble seeing the details in the image below, follow this link and use the magnification tool.]
Ah yes! I see the blobs on the parrot’s feet. It’s kind of how they articulated the feet. Those are the tips of the drill. A larger one was used for the eye.
And I think you said you can see evidence that a wheel was used? You have two kinds of cutting devices: a pointed drill, which makes the little blobs, and you have wheels of different sizes. They’re like buzz saws, but smaller and without serrated edges. The straight lines you see in the feathers? Those are wheel cuts. The ground line on which the bird is standing is also a wheel cut.
How much work does the carving on the stone in the ancient Roman ring represent? I don’t know, but I think a day or two is quite right for a stone of this size and quality.
The stone in the ancient Roman ring is green chalcedony, and green features prominently in the plumage of the Indian Ringneck parrot. Is it reasonable to assume that the carver deliberately chose a green stone to match the parrot’s green feathers? I have to think yes, but there’s no way to prove it. It’s logical.
And the ring that the carver placed at the parrot’s neck helped identify the bird as an Indian Ringneck? Yes. I’d like to claim that for my own, but previous catalogers identified it. I took a look and agreed.
What is your favorite detail of the engraving on the gem in this ancient Roman ring, and why? I love the quality of it. When I looked through my books to find other examples of parrots, of all the ones I saw, this was the best of the group. The others were good, but not as good as this. I think it’s the finest example of a parrot on a Roman gem.
I realize we can’t hop in a time machine and go back and watch the creation and sale of this ancient Roman ring, but why might someone have wanted a gold finger ring with a gemstone carved to look like a very specific exotic parrot? Why this bird? It could have been a pun on the owner’s name. He could have had an Indian Ringneck as a cherished pet. He could have been in the animal business. We just don’t know, and we’ll never know.
But the level of detail we see in the parrot–that points to it being a custom commission, surely? In the ruins of Pompeii, there’s a gem carver’s workshop, and there were a lot of gems finished and ready to go. We don’t know if they were commissioned, or on spec, and there’s no way to know.
What is the ancient Roman ring like in person? It’s a heavy, beautiful, high-carat gold. Almost all ancient gold tends to be that way, 97 percent gold. It’s a nice, solid hoop that tapers a little bit from the widest point of the bezel at the back.
Have you tried on the ancient Roman ring? I can’t tell you what size it is, but I know I had it on my finger. I can’t remember if it slid all the way down or not. I remember it feeling heavy. Some rings are made out of thin sheet gold hammered over softer material. This is made out of more gold than some. It has a very nice feel to it.
How big is the green chalcedony? The whole thing is 1 1/16th of an inch wide at its widest point. I’d guess the gem is 3/4 of an inch wide.
Could you use this ancient Roman ring if you wanted to? Could you stamp the stone into clay or wax and see the parrot impression? Absolutely. If we were not under a pandemic, I would have an exhibition. I would have knobs of clay under the jewelry cases, and I’d take impressions for people.
And I understand its provenance is notable? What makes it so special is it’s documented back to the 17th century. It was known in the collection of Francesco Boncompagni, who died in 1641, and it passed down in his family for generations until Giorgio Sangiorgi bought it. We know he bought it in 1933 because he published a journal article about it in that year.
How does condition come into play with something that’s as old as this ancient Roman ring? Again, it’s about the beauty of the object. The setting has some surface scratches, but overall, its condition is very, very good.
What’s the world auction record for an ancient engraved gem or a piece of ancient jewelry with an engraved gem? Was it set with you at Christie’s? Yes and yes. The record was set in part one of this collection, which sold in April of 2019. It was a black chalcedony intaglio portrait of Antinous, a young man we know was a favorite of Emperor Hadrian. He died tragically in an accident in the Nile. It was estimated, conservatively, at $300,000 to $500,000 and sold for $2.1 million. It’s a fragment, but what a fragment!
Why will this ancient Roman ring stick in your memory? It’s just so delightful. When you look at this thing, it makes you happy. And you see it exactly the way it was meant to be seen. It’s a connection to the ancient world–it’s personal, it’s immediate, and you experience it the way an ancient person would have experienced it.
How to bid: The ancient Roman ring featuring a parrot carved engraved on a green chalcedony stone is lot 223 in Masterpieces in Miniature: Ancient Engraved Gems formerly in the G. Sangiorgi Collection Part II. The online Christie’s auction began on June 2, 2020 and continues until June 16, 2020.
Images are courtesy of Christie’s.
Bernheimer also features in a story Christie’s did on engraved classical gems.
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