Lifting the lid on sarcophagus relics

Sarcophagi (that’s the plural of sarcophagus, for all you wordsmiths out there) are the box-like burial receptacles, most commonly carved from stone and either displayed above ground or buried below ground. They’re most commonly associated with the ancient Greeks, and in fact the word sarcophagus is Greek for “flesh-eating stone,” as it was believed the chemical properties of the limestone used to make them rapidly facilitated the decomposition of the corpses.

Egyptian sarcophagus of Djeserkare Amenhotep, circa 1069-945 B.C. Upper half of the lid to an inner coffin. Clenched hands, striped wig, member of the priesthood. Three cartouches by the hands read: ‘Osiris, Ruler; Djeserkare; Amenhotem (Ruler of) Thebes.’ 36in. tall x 19in. wide. Estimate: $3,000-$5,000, sold for $27,000 at Cottone Auctions in Geneseo, N.Y., on March 23, 2013.

It’s rare that a complete and intact sarcophagus is seen at auction, although it does happen from time to time (more on that later). Understandably, sarcophagi mostly reside in museums around the world, most notably in their countries of origin (Greece, of course, but also Italy, Spain, India and other areas of Asia like Vietnam and Indonesia). Even so, eager collectors actively seek out any piece of a sarcophagus they can find, usually in the form of a fragment, lid, mask or panel.

Complete, life-size ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, Late Period, circa 712-332 B.C. Life-sized gesso and painted wood, pharaonic burial sarcophagus with overall black ground, 67½in. tall, complete with upper and lower sections. Estimate: $75,000-$100,000, sold for $52,500 at Artemis Gallery in suburban Boulder, Colorado on June 13, 2014.

“Perhaps there is nothing more representative of the ancient world than the proverbial Egyptian sarcophagus,” said Bob Dodge, founder and executive director of Artemis Gallery in suburban Boulder, Colorado. “They’ve been the feature of literally hundreds of movies and boast the elite of Hollywood like Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Tom Cruise, Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford and countless others.”

Dodge added, “Man has always had a fascination with death and rebirth, and the Egyptian sarcophagus is the ‘vessel’ that carried the body to the afterlife – and on occasion was the container that, when opened, unleashed the mummy back into the world of the living. Sarcophagi are mysterious, beautiful, historically significant and something that can inspire awe in people of all ages and all backgrounds. The fascination of King Tut and the beauty of his golden sarcophagus is as alluring today as it was in 1922 when Carter unveiled him to the world.”

Egyptian polychrome decorated sarcophagus cover, Late to Ptolemaic Period (circa 664-30 B.C.), mounted in a plexiglass case, with restorations, 44in. tall by 17in. wide. From the collection of the late actor Larry Hagman. Estimate: $600-$800, sold for $4,600 at Andrew Jones Auctions in Los Angeles on March 3, 2019.

Aileen Ward, vice president and senior specialist with Andrew Jones Auctions in Los Angeles, said that with specific regard to aesthetics, “there’s a lot of crossover between the style of decoration on sarcophagi and modern and contemporary art. The distillation and abstraction of features and form have been inspiring artists since the 19th century and even before. The appeal to some is the mysticism inherent in a sarcophagus. The connection with the ancient Egyptian belief in the underworld and afterlife and how best to secure safe passage and an agreeable eternity resonates with some fundamental human facet.”

Deric Torres of Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, California, said the deeper element that accounts for the appeal of the sarcophagus “is the historical aspect, compounded by the importance in human and cultural history. One needs to research the provenance of pieces being considered for purchase, as that can add a tremendous amount of value. For pieces with concrete provenance, prices remain steady, with growth projected for important pieces. By contrast, Ethnic, African and Pre-Columbian pieces have hit a slowdown in growth in auctions globally.”

Lot of two Egyptian mummified hands, New Kingdom, the larger extending to wrist and lower forearm with partial wrapping intact and two fingernails exposed, the underside with skin exposed, and retains a well-defined scarab ring, 12in. long by 4in. wide. Estimate: $8,000-$12,000, sold for $8,500 at Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2012.

Bob Dodge remarked, “The market for Egyptian sarcophagi is and always has been robust. Back in the golden age of travel – before cultural patrimony laws put a huge damper in the export of antiquities – travelers to Egypt loved to bring sarcophagi masks back from their travels to Egypt. An interesting antidote – one reason that so many sarcophagi in western collections are only the upper half of the box – if you cut a sarcophagus in half, you could fit it in your luggage. In too many cases, the lower half was simply discarded.”

Egyptian carved wood sarcophagus mummy mask showing remnants of polychrome, 10in. x 9½in, x 2in. Estimate: $200-$300, sold for $475 at Material Culture in Philadelphia on Dec. 17, 2017.

Dodge pointed out that cultural patrimony laws have had a negative impact on the sale of complete boxes, but less so on masks and sections of sarcophagi. “Before his fall from grace, Zahi Hawass, the former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities, went on a worldwide crusade to repatriate all sarcophagi back to Egypt – regardless of when they originally left,” Dodge said. “Collectors and even institutions became concerned that if they purchased a ‘sarc,’ Hawass might file a lawsuit and attempt to repatriate it.”

Going forward, Dodge says, “the price and demand for well-provenanced sarcophagi will only increase. I will say, like in most areas of the antiquity market, better quality items outperform lower quality goods and we see this trend continuing for the near term in all things Egyptian, sarcophagi included.”

Ancient Egyptian wood sarcophagus with mummified bird with blue faience Ushabti and Eye of Horus, in perfect condition, circa 700 B.C., 7in. x 2¾in. Estimate: $800-$1,200, sold for $8,503 at Palmyra Heritage Gallery in New York City on March 11, 2018.

Aileen Ward said the high-end works with long established provenance will always be in demand for top tier collectors. “The mid-range pieces have been flat but there seems to be something of an uptick in interest as collectors see that these artifacts with so much history, so much of a story to tell have been undervalued,” she said. “In light of recent world events, pieces with inveterate provenance will likely increase in value.”

As stated, occasionally a complete and intact sarcophagus comes to market, almost always with a steep estimate. Case in point: in December 2013, Artemis Gallery offered an Egyptian painted wood funerary ensemble from the Third Intermediate Period, 21st Dynasty (1070-945 B.C.). The grouping included a coffin lid, trough and mummy-board, all brightly painted with an iconographic representations and texts, the lid anthropoid, depicting the deceased, wearing a striped tripartite headcloth crowned with a fillet centered by lilies, the arms crossed and covered by an immense floral broad collar, exposing the separately made hands extending outward, two seated animal-headed deities below. The ensemble sold within estimate, for $221,000.