The public auction houses put historical art into ideal, identifiable categories: Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Byzantine. Sotheby’s has dropped its London antiquities auctions, therefore it has added two additional classes, Western Asiatic Antiquities and Islamic Works of Art, to the June 4 antiquities sales event in Manhattan.
The Christie’s sales event, on June 5, includes all historical art, starting with neolithic sculpture from the fifth millennium B.C. Both sales are large, and the works of antiques are very well described.
But the historical world is becoming more difficult. Another “lost” culture has been rediscovered, as can be seen inside a show entitled “Historical Gold: The Great deal of the Thracians,” organized by the Republic of Bulgaria with all the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in Washington. It really is currently on the Kimbell Museum of Art in Fort Worth (through July 19), then moves to San Francisco and after that New Orleans. Later it will likely be noticed in Memphis, Boston, and Detroit. An accompanying catalogue is published by Vassil Bojkov and costs $40.
The show’s 200 magnificent gold and silver items, dating from 4000 B.C. to some.D. 400, plus some, only recently excavated, come from the Balkans, an area now comprised of Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, northern Greece and western Turkey. It’s an easy show to appreciate. There are sumptuous gold necklaces dripping with golden rosettes, large gold drinking vessels inside the shape of galloping horses, silver jugs with friezes depicting wild satyrs pursuing maenads, along with a splendid Pegasus wall plaque. Additionally, there are horse trappings and ceremonial objects for mysterious rituals.
Technically, historical Thrace was actually a Balkan region where a conglomeration of tribes coexisted on semifriendly terms until they reached the zenith of their power in the fifth century B.C. At one time, Thrace stretched throughout the Balkan Peninsula, involving the Adriatic and also the Black Sea. (Dr. Stella Miller-Collett, professor of classical archeology at Bryn Mawr College, said Byzantium was named after the Thracian city of Byzas.) Thrace was a loose entity until around A.D. 45, when the Roman Emperor Claudius annexed it.
The Thracian people were Indo-Europeans who settled in Thrace. As Torkom Demirjian, the president of Ariadne Galleries in Manhattan, explained: “Their origins usually are not known. Merely the geography is apparent.”
The Thracians had no written language, so what exactly is known about the subject is colored by the perspective of those who wrote on them. To Homer, Thracians were the formidable enemies from the Greeks inside the Trojan War. In Book X of “The_Iliad,” Homer covers the Thracian King Rhesos, whose horses were, “the most royal I actually have seen, whiter than snow and swift since the sea wind,” he writes. “His chariot is a master work in gold and silver, and the armor, huge and golden, brought by him the following is marvelous to view, like no war gear of males but of immortals.”
Herodotus writes about the ferocity of Thracian warriors, who did not value civilization. In accordance with Thracian custom, he declares, “noblest of is living from war and plunder.” Thucydides notes how throughout the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 B.C., the Thracian king was paid the same amount of annual tribute as Athens, 400 to 500 talents.
Exactly what the Thracians lacked in language, that they had in gold. “Athens did not have natural gold; it needed to originate from other sources,” Dr. Miller-Collett said. She said that gold cannot be carbon-dated, but the earliest worked gold in Europe is at Bulgaria. The goldsmithing is exquisite. The problem is how you can analyze the Thracian style.
The Letnitsa Treasure, as an example, is a team of 22 fourth-century B.C. plaques that once decorated horse harnesses. Discovered in 1964, the appliques depict bears in mortal combat, a figure attacking a 3-headed dragon, a nereid, riding a sea creature, and similar energetic encounters. In composition, these figures seem like the ferocious beasts rendered in metalwork by nomadic peoples of the Asian Steppes. A show of the animal-style art is presently at Ariadne Galleries, 970 Madison Avenue, at 76th Street, through June 15.