The public auction houses put early forms of art into nice, recognizable categorizations: 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 auction in Manhattan.
The Christie’s sale, on June 5, includes all early forms of art, beginning with neolithic sculpture of the fifth millennium B.C. Both sales are large, and the works of art are described.
However the early world is getting more complicated. Another “lost” culture is being rediscovered, as is visible within a show entitled “Historic Gold: The Lot of the Thracians,” organized through the Republic of Bulgaria with all the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in Washington. It is actually currently in 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 expenses $40.
The show’s 200 wonderful gold and silver artifacts, dating from 4000 B.C. to A.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 a fairly easy show to appreciate. You will find sumptuous gold necklaces dripping with golden rosettes, large gold drinking vessels within the shape of galloping horses, silver jugs with friezes depicting wild satyrs pursuing maenads, as well as a splendid Pegasus wall plaque. Additionally, there are horse trappings and ceremonial objects for mysterious rituals.
Technically, early Thrace had been a Balkan region where a conglomeration of tribes coexisted on semifriendly terms until they reached the zenith of the power in the fifth century B.C. At one time, Thrace stretched over 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 following the Thracian city of Byzas.) Thrace was actually a loose entity until around A.D. 45, when the Roman Emperor Claudius annexed it.
The Thracian everyone was 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 obvious.”
The Thracians had no written language, so what exactly is known on them is colored by the perspective of those who wrote on them. To Homer, Thracians were the formidable enemies in 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 as the sea wind,” he writes. “His chariot is actually a master function in gold and silver, and the armor, huge and golden, brought by him the following is marvelous to see, like no war gear of males but of immortals.”
Herodotus writes regarding the ferocity of Thracian warriors, who did not value civilization. Based on Thracian custom, he declares, “noblest of all is living from war and plunder.” Thucydides notes how throughout the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 B.C., the Thracian king was paid the equivalent amount of annual tribute as Athens, 400 to 500 talents.
Just what the Thracians lacked in language, that they had in gold. “Athens was without natural gold; it had to result from other sources,” Dr. Miller-Collett said. She said that gold can not be carbon-dated, but that 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, for 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 three-headed dragon, a nereid, riding a sea creature, and other energetic encounters. In composition, these figures appear to be the ferocious beasts rendered in metalwork by nomadic peoples from the Asian Steppes. A show of the animal-style art is presently at Ariadne Galleries, 970 Madison Avenue, at 76th Street, through June 15.