A rare Etruscan ivory sistrum
Lot 172
A rare Etruscan ivory sistrum
Sold for £ 43,020 (US$ 60,443) inc. premium


21 Apr 2005, 10:30 BST

London, New Bond Street

Lot Details
A rare Etruscan ivory sistrum A rare Etruscan ivory sistrum A rare Etruscan ivory sistrum A rare Etruscan ivory sistrum A rare Etruscan ivory sistrum A rare Etruscan ivory sistrum
A rare Etruscan ivory sistrum
Circa 6th-4th Centuries B.C.
The finely carved fluted handle with eight grooved ribs, a raised collar above and below, both inlaid with fine gold wire to form a meander pattern, with a bulbous terminal, possibly once representing the head of an animal, the handle surmounted by two actor's masks, a comic actor represented on one side, his exaggerated mouth agape and 'real' lips visible within, the wide open eyes with engraved details of the arched eyebrows and rims, with a deeply furrowed brow and broad wrinkled nose, the face framed by a fringe and locks of hair falling below the ears, a second mask on the other side representing a tragic actor, with down-turned prominent mouth and large eyes engraved in sunk relief carved with details of the rims, the face framed by thick wavy hair, locks falling to cover the ears, a palmette surmounting the heads carved with naturalistic details, a rectangular hollowed socket on each side of the palmette to take the curved arms, the remains of a bronze pin in the base of one of these sockets, 85/8in. (21.8cm), both of the separately made arms composed of a fluted lotus flower from which the head of an open-mouthed lion emerges, tapering towards the base in order to fit the hollowed sockets at the sides of the palmettes, a raised collar around the middle of the arm of similar construction to those on the handle, both inlaid with gold wire to form a meander pattern, the lion's head shown with bulbous eyes and large ears set flat back, carved with details of the nostrils and whiskers, the jaw agape with teeth visible from within, 5¼in. (13.4cm.) and 5½in. (14cm.), and four discs, each pierced centrally, two of slightly convex form with three carved ridges encircling the hole, a grooved ridge around the edge, 1¾in. (4.4cm.) diam., two of double-sided convex form with a double grooved band around the edge, 1¾in. (4.4cm.), re-composed from fragments, some surface splitting, with infill and reconstruction in places, a more detailed condition report is available from the Department upon request


  • Provenance:
    Acquired by the present owner from a provincial auction in the North of England. It came from a house clearance and was sold in a lot with a number of bronze artefacts of various periods. The sistrum was in a wooden box with loose red velvet lining and old tissue paper, in which parts of the sistrum were wrapped. A number of the bronze objects had old labels on them ink inscribed with some information on the object and with refernces to the 'Tristram FSA Collection'. We can only assume a connection with the Tristram collection as the sistrum was not accompanied by a collection label, it is merely by association with the other artefacts in the same lot that we can consider it was at one time the property of Mr Tristram.

    The labels clearly pre-date the 2nd World War and may even date to late 19th Century. We have established only one Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (FSA) bearing the name Tristram during that era. He is one Ernest William Tristram (1882-1952), painter and art historian, born in Carmarthen. He studied under the Arts and Crafts designer W.R. Lethaby at the Royal College of Art, South Kensington, whose fascination with the Middle Ages he came to share. As a student he began to make meticulous watercolour copies of Medieval wall and panel paintings which were to grow into a very large and important collection, representing almost the only approach to a national record of these art works in Britain. Several hundred of his sketches, copies, reconstructions and other records are now held in the Victoria and Albert Museum. A further large collection was bequeathed at his death to Buckfast Abbey, Devon. He combined his work as the chronicler of English Medieval wall paintings with an academic career. He returned to the Royal College of Art as a member of staff in 1906 and later became Professor of Design in 1925, a post he held until his retirement in 1948, when he became Professor Emeritus.

    In the course of his career Tristram recorded almost every major and many minor wall painting throughout the country, as well as a number of monuments. He also cleaned and conserved many important wall paintings, although many of his methods of conservation were flawed, his use of wax dissolved in turpentine as a fixative often proved disastrous. He contributed to many publications, one of his greatest works were the monumental volumes published with the aid of the Pilgrim Trust in 1944 and 1950 and entitled English Medieval Wall Painting, covering the 12th and 13th Century respectively. For a fuller biography on E. W. Tristram see E.C. Rouse, 'Tristam, Ernest William (1882-1952)', rev. Rosemary Mitchell, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press 2004).

    For an ivory sistrum in the British Museum with similar lion's heads emerging from lotus flowers see acquisition reference 'Ivory 1910.4-17.1'. It was purchased from Rollin and Feuardent in 1910 for £120, they were then leading antiquities dealers and numismatists based in Paris but also with offices at 27 Haymarket, London. The museum logbook noted it as an 'ivory sistrum, rattle of four and a half loose and one fixed disc on a bronze rod. Lion heads and lotus'. Length 10in, from Ovieto.

    The delicate nature of the material suggests a funeraly use for this sistrum, it would surely have had a cult aspect to it, perhaps to ward off evil. Apart from the example in the British Museum, we cannot trace any other examples either published or unpublished in ivory, this could be due to the fragile nature of the material, it is nevertheless an extremely rare work in ivory surviving from antiquity.

    Sistra are more readily associated with Ancient Egypt particularly with the cult of Hathor. The word sistrum (pl. sistra) is a Greek word referring to an ancient rattle with a long handle that was used by priestesses and female musicians, and occasionally the king. In Egyptian rituals wood or bronze sistra were shaken to appease or entertain the goddess Hathor, producing a rustling sound possibly imitating the rustle of reeds in the marshes. The seshet, as it was called in Egyptian is its onomatopoeic name, the naos type was known since the Old Kingdom. After the Conquest of Alexander the Great, the Greeks adopted some aspects of Egyptian music.

    Ivory was a material highly prized during antiquity and was used in making luxury objects. The Levant was the ancient source of the raw material as well as a centre for ivory carving in antiquity. Ivory carving is an extremely delicate craft which only a small guild of artisans practised, passing the technique from master to apprentice. The ideas spread across the Aegean and the Near East, mingling Eastern and Western decorative elements. It is a dense and close grained material and can be very finely carved and highly polished as can be seen with our example. Intersecting lines or striations are often visible on the surface of elephant ivory, and sometimes appear rather like machine tooling lines. These lines show the original circumference of the tusk rather like tree rings.

    Ivory work was popular in Etruscan society. Its great value and elaborate workmanship limited its possession to a wealthy elite as could be seen in the noteworthy deposits in graves during the Orientalising Period (700-600 B.C.). For a fuller discussion on the use of ivory see Mario Torelli, The Etruscans, (London 2000), pp.472-475. For further general discussions on the use of ivory in Antiquity see Jean-René, "Collection de L'école Française de Rome 71", Les reliefs archaiques de Chiusi - École Française de Rome Palais Farnèse (1984) and Richard D. Barnett, Ancient Ivories in the Middle East (QEDEM series, Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology, 14) (Jerusalem 1982).

    Bonhams gratefully acknowledges the conservation work carried out by Veronica R. Noble in 2004.
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