LOS ANGELES – The first skull to be carved out of one of the rarest materials on Earth will be offered in Bonhams' Lapidary Works of Art, Gemstones and Minerals auction on November 24 at Bonhams, Los Angeles.
A life-size model of a male skull and the world's largest known meteorite carving, artist Lee Downey acid-etched the carving to uncover the Gibeon meteorite's singular, lattice-like "Widmanstätten" pattern. Downey is known for selecting exotic materials with which to work.
"By sculpting the skull's undulating curves, and because each crystal reacted uniquely to the acid treatment, Downey brought out features never seen before in Gibeon," said Claudia Florian, Bonhams Co-Consulting Director of Lapidary Works of Art, Specimen Gemstones and Minerals.
"Beneath the triangular geometry on the skull's surface, 'thumbprints' of crystallisation, graphite spots and 'light threads' refracted by the iron nickel layers can be seen for the first time," she said. "It's out of this world."
Downey chose Gibeon meteorite because it "best embodies the 'mystery'" of the human skull. Its track through time and space make it "the architecturally 'perfect' form for the brain vessel," he said. Painstaking measurements were taken from an actual skull of a male to ensure realism and accuracy.
Named "Yorick", the carving draws reference to the dead court jester whose skull triggers Hamlet's monologue on mortality in Act 5, Scene I of William Shakespeare's play. Historically, skulls have been associated with death, after-life, rebellion and carpe diem.
"Yorick" is also remarkable because it is flawless; polished meteorite typically features pits and cracks. The tridymite on the skull's forehead – a silica polymorph and an exceptionally rare component in IVA irons – was a part of the Gibeon rock; its location was completely fortuitous.
• Gibeon is iron-based and one of the rarest forms of meteorite.
• It originated billions of years ago from an unstable planet that existed briefly between Jupiter and Mars.
• When the planet broke apart, a section of its core travelled through space for four billion years.
• Only the vacuum of space – which provides no surrounding molecules through which heat can be conducted away from the meteorite – allows the prolonged period of intense heat necessary for the alloys of iron meteorites to crystallize.
• During its journey, the meteorite's alloys crystallised to form an octahedral crystalline structure that cannot be recreated on earth.
• When it met the earth's atmosphere, about 1000 years ago, it exploded over the Kalahari Desert.
• The iron rain formed a meteorite field in Great Namaqualand, Namibia, which was first discovered by the local Nama people.
• A 48,000 gramme block was cut out of the heart of a complete, 280 kg iron meteorite, which Downey then painstakingly carved down to the carving's 21,070 grammes.
• Radiometric dating estimates the age of crystallisation of Gibeon's metal at approximately 4 billion years.
ABOUT LEE DOWNEY
Downey is an American artist who lives and works with a family of master carvers in Bali. He has fashioned skulls from woolly mammoth ivory, bowling balls and jet, but Gibeon is by far his most ambitious decision.
Auction preview hours (open to the public): November 21 from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. PST; November 22 from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.; and November 23 from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.
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NOTES FOR EDITORS
Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to www.bonhams.com