Ancient Roman Aphrodite Sells for $24.6 Million in London

A lost Classical object, unseen for 70 years, that followed wealth around the world is now going to Asia

Sotheby’s sold a rare and storied Roman statue of Aphrodite in London for a record price of £18.6 million ($24.6 million). Sotheby’s says the price is a record for any ancient marble sculpture sold at auction. The work was offered in a single lot sale with a low estimate of £2 million. The bidding lasted for a full 20 minutes. The winning buyer was an Asian private collector. 

That the buyer was from Asia is both impressive and not surprising. Asian buyers have played a significant role in Western art markets for several years. They’ve bought, or bid upon, a range of work not associated with Asian culture—including Victorian artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Finding of Moses which shocked the auction world when it made nearly $36 million against a $3 million estimate a decade ago.

The Hamilton Aphrodite, as the statue is known, has an even more interesting story that recapitulates major moments in art collecting since the 18th Century. The statue was acquired by the Scottish Duke of Hamilton in 1776 during the height of the Grand Tour and the British Aristocracy’s fascination with Italy and its art. 

The statue was created from disparate pieces and 18th Century restorations. The British dealer in Italy who had assembled the work noted in a letter that the head came from a different statue than the body. In 18th Century this was common practice. 

For the next 144 years, the statue was a central feature of Hamilton’s grand house. As the agricultural wealth of Britain declined, many classical treasures were sold from Europe to the US. The Hamilton Aphrodite was acquired by one of the legendary figures of the early 20th Century in the United States, William Randolph Hearst. 

A notorious art addict, Hearst apparently never uncrated the statue. It was sold in 1940 to an art dealer whose own estate was sold in 1949, the last known sighting of the ancient work. 

Sotheby’s received an inquiry about the statue six or seven years ago. The owners were unaware of its history or value. 

Traveling from the United Kingdom to the United States to Asia follows the path of so many cultural treasures that have migrated toward the countries and regions amassing surplus wealth and status. 

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