Classical Marble Statues are perhaps some of the most iconic artefacts from Classical Antiquity. They range from staggering full body pieces to tiny fascinating fragments. Their beauty and recognisable nature means they are some of the most sought-after pieces in auctions across the world. Even better, this means they don’t tend to lose value. Once they were out of reach for mid range buyers but, with pieces in the low thousands, they’re something smaller collectors can consider. Are you interested? Let us walk you through the history of these statues and some top tips for collecting them.

History of Classical Marble Statues

Greek

Greek marble sculpture began as early as the 6th Century BC. Inspired by Egyptian and Mesopotamian work before it, it was fairly simplistic. As the Classical period began, the style we would recognise as ‘Classical Marbles’ began. Work became more expressive and unique with flowing carving and realistic features. Buildings were designed with marble statues built in for decoration and subject matter became more realistic. Additionally, sculptures start having artists attributed to them. For example, the great Praxiteles worked in this period and was attributed with various statues including Aphrodite of Knidos. This is thought to be the first full body female nude and it caused quite a stir in ancient Kos!

As we enter the Hellenistic period (4th Century BC), Greek sculptors continued to build on Classical artistic processes. The territorial remits of Greece expanded under Alexander the Great, and the style of sculpture became increasingly diverse. Indeed, we see this in the expansion of Greco-Indian work and sculpture in Bactria. In general, work becomes even more realistic and reflective of everyday life. Even the famous works of the period, like the Venus di Milo or Laocoon and his Sons that show figures from Classical myth, have more emotion and fluidity than their predecessors.

Laocoon and His Sons – Photo by iam_os on Unsplash

Roman

It’s near the end of the Hellenistic Period in the 1st Century BC that we start to see the Romans creating marble statues in the Greek image. Notable philhellenes (“admirers of the Greeks”) they directly copied Greek art works made of both bronze or marble. Indeed, by the 2nd Century AD there was an enormous appetite for these copies in domestic and public settings. A notable example of this is the ‘Dying Gaul’ statue that was a Roman reproduction of an original Greek bronze. Of course, they also made many works that were theirs entirely, with Roman references and techniques. The most distinct Roman sculpture are the heads and busts of emperors, noblemen and gods. They began as death masks for the deceased, but as time progressed, they became markers of wealth, status and power and started to be made of the living.

Read more about Romans Collecting and Copying Greek statues

They weren’t Always white?

Something you might not know about these ancient statues, is that they weren’t necessarily white. The shiny white statues that we praise in museums may well have been unrecognisable to a classical viewer. For them, these statues would have been painted with all colours of pigments and were adorned with gems and metals. So, why do we all think of them as a creamy white? Firstly, many pigments were organic or fragile so were lost with time. Then, as sculptures were excavated with traces of pigment, the traces were scrubbed off as dirt before they were displayed in renaissance museums. This created a culture where everyone expects marbles to be free from pigment; as polychromy expert Vinzenz Brinkmann said to the New Yorker, ‘vision is highly subjective.’ Archaeologists and experts got used to not looking for colour and then dismissing it when they saw it.

Our collective vision of these statues being just white has had wider cultural consequences. Right extremists co-opt these white marble statues and see them as showing only white individuals. Recent studies have shown the racial identities of Classical Mediterranean were much more diverse than this. Indeed, one could say it’s partially our loss of pigments on statues that has lead to a loss of understanding of the racial diversity of Classical past.

Example of possible polychromy at the Gods in Colour Exhibition – Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

First Collectors of Classical Marble Statues

Interest in cataloguing and collecting the marbles of antiquity began in the late middle ages. As the Renaissance began to sweep Europe, interest in Greco-Roman Antiquity and imitating its characteristics lead to an interest in archaeology. For example, Flavio Bondi who is often hailed as one of the first archaeologists made a three-volume report of Rome’s archaeology that was published in the 1440s. One a more specific level, the aforementioned Laocoon and his Sons was excavated in 1506.

As we time moves on, we enter the period of the ‘Grand Tour’. Wealthy European nobles travelled around the Mediterranean and collected pieces to take back to their estates. It was a way of showing their education and status. Nobles like the Petty-Fitzmaurice family in England were known for a vast collection of Classical pieces. In an 1898 Catalogue of the collection 122 unique Classical marbles were identified. These pieces were collected from the Mediterranean and excavations of Roman sites in Britain.

Read More about the Inspiration Classical Art has had on Art throughout the Centuries

The Parthenon Marbles, photo by Nicole Baster on Unsplash

Who or What can Classical Marble Statues depict?

Gods

Ones of the most common depictions in ancient sculpture are gods and goddesses or classical myth. Sometimes these statues were focal points for temples and devotions. A perfect example of this is Hermes of Praxiteles. A Greek statue, it shows the messenger God Hermes holding the infant version of the God Dionysus. Created in 330 BC, it was found in 1877 at the Temple of Hera at Olympia. Of course, religious depictions of Gods weren’t just limited to temples but were found across Classical cities.

Famous Figures and Everyday People

As discussed in brief above, Roman statues often depicted the busts of wealthy individuals, senators and emperors. The Greeks did this too, especially in the Hellenistic period they liked depicting the everyday real people of their civilisation. However, these portraits could go further than simple depiction or art. Most famously, the emperor Augustus used these statues as propaganda. When he became emperor, he’s said to have commissioned 70 statues of himself. One of these is Augustus of Primaporta; a full body, standing portrait that shows him as athletic and dressed in military wear. His right arm points to the horizon in a triumphant pose. The statue was found in 1863 near the Italian town of Primaporta, in the grounds of his wife’s villa. Augustus created the Pax Romana and strived to keep the empire peaceful and ordered. In order to do this in enacted many policies and laws. However, none was more blatant than the propaganda of his ever young and ever triumphant image.

Classical Marble Statues - Roman Marble Head of Woman
Marble head of a Woman owned by Pax Romana – available for sale here.

Friezes

A third form we often find these ancient marbles in is friezes. Originally part of buildings, they were often designed to tell histories and myths. The most famous example of this are those from the Parthenon, known colloquially as the ‘Elgin Marbles’ or more properly, the ‘Parthenon Marbles.’ As a frieze they show the procession of the Panathenaic festival, which is a celebration of the goddess Athena, and also a battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos. These were part of the Parthenon, which was a large temple in Athens, but these could also be part of municipal buildings and homes.

What to look out for when buying Classical Marble Statues?

As when buying any antiquities, you want to be sure of their authenticity. Marbles are some of the most recognisable pieces of ancient art. For example, during the Grand Tour and Renaissance periods many direct copies were made of ancient sculpture. These pieces have value of their own – but of course they aren’t ancient! You can spot these pieces as they are usually described as ‘style’ instead of just Roman or Greek.

One thing to look at when choosing ancient marbles is the aging of the stone. Give away marks of age are spiderweb like calcification marks. One should remember these marbles are 2,000 years old – it’s unlikely they’ll be perfect! Additionally, many pieces will have gone through renaissance restoration that might seem undesirable for the modern buyer. However, this restoration is part of the items story and does not greatly affect the value.

Close up images of Cupid Statue owned by Pax Romana Auctions – currently available for sale.

Finally, as always ensuring a good provenance is part of responsibly buying antiquities. There may be paperwork or records of earlier ownership in well known collections. In general, if you should always buy from reputable auction houses. It will give you peace of mind that they’ve worked with experts and external bodies, like the Art Loss Register, to ensure the pieces are genuine and were acquired legally.


If you’re interested in purchasing Classical Marble Statues, why not search our collection here? Similarly, if you have any questions email us on cs@paxromana.auction so we could answer any question you may have!

References

‘A Catalogue of the Marbles at Lansdowne House’

Kelly Richman-Abdou, ‘How Marble Sculptures Have Inspired Artists and Captivated Audiences for Millenia’ (2018)

Margaret Talbot, ‘The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture’ The New Yorker (2018)

1 Comment on “Classical Marble Statues – A Complete Guide to Greek and Roman Marbles

  1. Pingback: How to Buy Roman Art and Artefacts – A Complete Collecting Guide

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