The online auction listings put historical forms of art into nice, familiar classes: Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Byzantine. Sotheby’s has dropped its London antiquities auctions, therefore it has added two additional categorizations, Western Asiatic Antiquities and Islamic Works of Antiques, to its June 4 antiquities sale in Manhattan.
The Christie’s sales event, on June 5, includes all early antiques, starting with neolithic sculpture of the fifth millennium B.C. Both sales are large, and also the works of forms of art are very well described.
However the early world is to get more complicated. Another “lost” culture has been rediscovered, as is visible inside a show entitled “Old Gold: The Wealth of the Thracians,” organized from the Republic of Bulgaria with the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in Washington. It is actually currently on the Kimbell Museum of Antiques in Fort Worth (through July 19), then moves to San Francisco then New Orleans. Later it will probably be noticed in Memphis, Boston, and Detroit. An accompanying catalogue is published by Vassil Bojkov and costs $40.
The show’s 200 spectacular gold and silver artifacts, dating from 4000 B.C. to A.D. 400, and a few, only recently excavated, are from the Balkans, an area now composed of Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, northern Greece and western Turkey. It’s a fairly easy show to appreciate. There are sumptuous gold necklaces dripping with golden rosettes, large gold drinking vessels in the shape of galloping horses, silver jugs with friezes depicting wild satyrs pursuing maenads, and a splendid Pegasus wall plaque. In addition there are horse trappings and ceremonial objects for mysterious rituals.
Technically, historical Thrace had been a Balkan region in which a conglomeration of tribes coexisted on semifriendly terms until they reached the zenith with their power in the fifth century B.C. At one time, Thrace stretched over the Balkan Peninsula, between the Adriatic as well as the Black Sea. (Dr. Stella Miller-Collett, professor of classical archeology at Bryn Mawr College, said Byzantium was named right 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 are not known. Merely the geography is clear.”
The Thracians had no written language, so what is known about them is colored from the perspective of those that wrote about them. To Homer, Thracians were the formidable enemies from the Greeks within the Trojan War. In Book X of “The_Iliad,” Homer discusses the Thracian King Rhesos, whose horses were, “by far the most royal We have seen, whiter than snow and swift because the sea wind,” he writes. “His chariot is actually a master operate in gold and silver, and also the armor, huge and golden, brought by him is marvelous to find out, like no war gear of men but of immortals.”
Herodotus writes about the ferocity of Thracian warriors, who did not value civilization. According to Thracian custom, he declares, “noblest of is living from war and plunder.” Thucydides notes how during the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 B.C., the Thracian king was paid the same 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 come from other sources,” Dr. Miller-Collett said. She claimed that gold can not be carbon-dated, but the earliest worked gold in Europe is in Bulgaria. The goldsmithing is exquisite. The problem is how to analyze the Thracian style.
The Letnitsa Treasure, for instance, is a team of 22 fourth-century B.C. plaques that after 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 similar energetic encounters. In composition, these figures seem like the ferocious beasts rendered in metalwork by nomadic peoples in the Asian Steppes. A show with this animal-style forms of art happens to be at Ariadne Galleries, 970 Madison Avenue, at 76th Street, through June 15.