The J. Paul Getty Museum acquired at auction last week a group of seventeen ancient engraved gems from the collection of Roman art dealer Giorgio Sangiorgi (1886-1965). The great majority of the Sangiorgi gems were acquired before World War II, and many derive from notable earlier collections amassed by Lelio Pasqualini, the Boncompagni-Ludovisi family, the Duke of Marlborough, and Paul Arndt in Munich. Comprising some of the finest classical gems still in private hands, the Sangiorgi gems were brought to Switzerland in the 1950s and have remained there with his heirs until now.

Roman amethyst ringstone with a portrait of Demosthenes, signed by Dioskourides,
circa late 1st cent. BC [Credit: © 2019 Christie’s Image Ltd]

The group acquired by the Getty includes Greek gems of the Minoan, Archaic and Classical periods, as well as Etruscan and Roman gems, some of which are in their original gold rings. They have never been on public view and were only recently published for the first time in Masterpieces in Miniature. Engraved Gems from Prehistory to the Present (London and New York, 2018) by Claudia Wagner and Sir John Boardman. Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum explained:

"The acquisition of these gems brings into the Getty’s collection some of the greatest and most famous of all classical gems, most notably the portraits of Antinous and Demosthenes. But the group also includes many lesser-known works of exceptional skill and beauty that together raise the status of our collection to a new level. Two such are the image of three swans on a Bronze Age seal from Crete, which has an elegance and charm transcending its early date (c. 1600 B.C.); and the image of the semi-divine Perseus, a marvel of minute naturalism that cannot fail to enthrall. This acquisition represents the most important enhancement to the Getty Villa’s collection in over a decade."

The extraordinary frontal portrait of Demosthenes, the 4th century B.C. Greek orator, is one of the great masterpieces of the Sangiorgi collection. It is signed by the gem engraver Dioskourides, who is mentioned by ancient writers as the court gem engraver to the emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BC-AD 14) and is today regarded as one of the greatest gem engravers of Roman times.

The intaglio image is cut so deeply that the impression stands out in unusually high relief, reading more like a statue in the round. Demosthenes wears a mantle over one shoulder and turns his head slightly to one side. The orator is bearded, with a full mustache framing his lips. His brows are knitted and his forehead creased, giving him a seriousness of expression appropriate to the subject of his famous Philippics.

When it was in the collection of the Roman collector Lelio Pasqualini (1549-1611), the gem piqued the interest of every antiquarian, Grand Tour traveler, and glyptic scholar of the day, and its renown has only increased over time.

All seventeen gems will be featured as part of a special exhibition opening at the Getty Center in December highlighting recent acquisitions. Following that, they will go on view at the Getty Villa.

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