NEW YORK—A tiny, ancient limestone figure, the Guennol Lioness, became the costliest sculpture ever sold at auction when it fetched $57.2 million at Sotheby’s antiquities sale in New York on Dec. 5. The price surpassed the previous sculpture record of $29.2 million that was realized at Sotheby’s just last month for Pablo Picasso’s Tête de femme (Dora Maar), cast in 1950 (ANL, 11/27/07, p. 8).
Just 31⁄4 inches high, the lioness was created about 5,000 years ago in the region of ancient Mesopotamia, Sotheby’s experts said, noting that it was “one of the last known masterworks from the dawn of civilization remaining in private hands.” Said to have been found at a site near Baghdad some 80 years ago by a British archaeologist, the object was acquired in 1948 by Alastair Martin, a grandson of steel magnate Henry Phipps.
Martin and his wife, Edith, named their extensive art collection and Long Island estate “Guennol,” the Welsh name for Martin (the couple honeymooned in Wales). Since 1948 the Guennol Lioness has been on loan at the Brooklyn Museum, where Martin served as a trustee and president of the board for nearly 60 years, and has been exhibited at other venues as well. The proceeds of the sale will benefit a charitable trust established by the Martin family.
Five bidders, including three on the phone and two in the room, competed for the work. When bidding hit $27 million, the successful buyer, a man standing in the saleroom, entered the competition and battled a phone bidder until the hammer came down. He would identify himself only as “an English buyer” who wished to remain anonymous.
The previous record for any antiquity at auction was the $28.6 million given for Artemis and the Stag in June, also at Sotheby’s (ANL, 6/26/07, p. 4).