11 Most Expensive Auction Results in Ancient Art in the Last 5 Years

Each year, collectors and institutions spend millions on antiquities and artifacts. This article reveals the most expensive auction results for pieces of ancient art in the last five years.

Oct 18, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
ancient art auction results
An Assyrian Gypsum Relief of a Winged Genius, ca. 883-859 BC; Black Chalcedony Portrait Of Antinous, ca. 130-138 AD; The Coffin Of Pa-Di-Tu-Amun, ca. 945-889 BC; Marble Statue Of The Emperor Hadrian, ca. 117-138 AD


Throughout the centuries, the lure of the ancient world has evoked curiosity and interest, from the Neoclassical movement to the continued use of ancient names. The legacy of ancient civilizations shows itself in the many inventions still in use today, and their artistic creations attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to galleries and museums across the globe. At auction, bidders have proved willing to part with millions of dollars to buy themselves a small part of this elusive yet omnipresent world, and in the last five years, some incredible and beautiful ancient art pieces have sold at record prices. Uncover each of their auction results in detail in the rest of this article.


What Is Ancient Art?


Historical periods are always difficult to define: when does one era end and a new age begin? The concept of antiquity has not escaped from these problems, with scholars arguing endlessly about what really marked the end of the Roman Empire, or when civilization can truly be said to have started. The adjective ‘ancient,’ however, is generally used to refer to the long period between 3000 BC and AD 500. During these millennia, human societies erupted on a scale never before seen, with cities, ideas and inventions springing up everywhere, especially around the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East. 


Amid this flurry of activity, art was also developed and revolutionized, with new methods, media, and technology paving the way for some of the most magnificent examples of art and architecture the world had ever seen. From the Egyptian pyramids to Roman mosaics, ancient art remains a cultural icon in many places and continues to influence design today. 


Miraculously, many pieces of ancient art have been preserved across the ensuing millennia, and in recent years, some have even found their way to auction houses. Read on to find out more about the most expensive auction results of these sold since 2015. 


11. Limestone Bust Of Nekht-ankh, Egypt, Ca. 1800-1700 BC

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Realized Price: GBP 1,510,000


egyptian scribe limestone bust
The statuette of an ancient Egyptian scribe, made around 4000 years ago


Realized Price: GBP 1,510,000

Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, London, 03 July 2018, Lot 64

Known Seller: Decedents of Belgian engineer, financier, and collector, Adolphe Stoclet


About The Artwork


At only eight inches in height, this granite statuette might be small, but it nonetheless provides some valuable insight into ancient Egyptian religion. A male figure is depicted with clear, regular features, enveloped in a cloak and wearing a wide wig, and clutching a bolt of cloth in his right hand. The subject is identified by an inscription on the base of the statuette, which reads: “An invocation of the offering for the guest of Thoth, Lord of Khemenu (Hermopolis), the Scribe of the Temple Nekht-Ankh, whom F[…] bore.” 


This shows that the statuette was dedicated to Thoth, the god of wisdom, magic, and art, as a votive, made by the scribe of what is now known as ‘The Tomb of the Two Brothers.‘ In addition to the evidence it provides about religious customs in ancient Egypt, it also holds great value as a piece of ancient art, since its fine lines and contours have withstood the test of time and it remains remarkably well-preserved. For this very reason, it was sold for the huge sum of just over £1.5m when it appeared at Sotheby’s in 2018.


10. Black Chalcedony Portrait Of Antinous, Rome, Ca. 130-138 AD

Realized Price: USD 2,115,000


roman god antinous
A small but spectacular portrait of the Roman god Antinous, engraved in chalcedony


Realized Price: USD 2,115,000

Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 29 April 2019, Lot 37

Known Seller: Sicilian art collector and dealer, Giorgio Sangiorgi


About The Artwork


Used across the globe for tens of thousands of years as a carving material, the iridescent sheen of chalcedony made it an ideal medium for the decorative arts. From around 2000 BC onwards, the peoples of the Mediterranean Basin and the Central Asian trade routes began to use the stone for seals, jewelry, and cameos. One of the best-preserved and most famous examples of this is ‘The Marlborough Antinous,’ named after the Duke of Marlborough who once owned it, declaring it “an incredible beauty.” 


The stone shows a meticulously engraved portrait bust of Antinous, wearing a traditional hunting dress. Antinous was the handsome young favorite of Emperor Hadrian, whose death in the Nile in AD 130 saw him deified and worshipped at pagan Roman festivals. His legacy would become that of a gay icon, not only in the ancient world but even in the much later works of Oscar Wilde and Fernando Pessoa. The engraving has always been admired, and the missing portions of his shoulders were filled in with pure gold at some point during the Renaissance, an addition that has made the color scheme particularly striking. This finely preserved and culturally iconic engraving was sold at Christie’s in 2019 for the princely sum of $2.1m, truly worthy of its imperial history. 


9. The Coffin Of Pa-Di-Tu-Amun, Egypt, Ca. 945-889 BC

Realized Price: USD 3,255,000


egyptian sarcophagus
An incredibly preserved sarcophagus from ancient Egypt


Realized Price: USD 3,255,000

Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 28 October 2019, Lot 456

Known Seller: Mougins Museum of Classical Art


About The Artwork


One of the finest examples of a coffin of its age to appear at auction, the sarcophagus of a weaver named Pa-di-tu-Amun is richly decorated with boldly colored iconography. With decorative features covering almost every surface, it is a magnificent example of Egyptian art from the Third Intermediate Period, during which the paintings and sculptures that previously adorned the walls of tombs were transferred to the very vessel of interment.


Interestingly, the lid of the coffin shows female features, suggesting that it was reused from an earlier burial ensemble and altered to suit its new purpose, with the addition of a beard, for example. Both lid and trough are intricately embellished: the former is covered in images and hieroglyphs invoking the gods Re-Harakhty-Atum and Osiris while writing on the latter features not only the name of Pa-di-tu-Amun but also his titles and genealogy. It is also decorated with symbols representing death and the underworld, such as a funeral procession featuring animals, humans, and gods. Even the inside of the coffin is ornate, with a huge portrait of Osiris on the base, and scenes of Pa-di-tu-Amun himself meeting the gods around the inner walls.


Embodying Egyptian funeral art, this coffin is one of the most richly detailed relics of the ancient world to appear at auction in recent years. In 2019, it was bought at Christie’s for over $3m, attesting to its beauty, historic significance, and artistic value.


8. Torso Of A Dancing Faun, Rome, Ca. 1st Century BC

Realized Price: EUR 2,897,500


dancing faun torso
The simple but beautifully elegant torso of a dancing faun


Realized Price: EUR 2,897,500

Estimate: EUR 200,000 – 300,000

Venue & Date: Christie’s, Paris, 08-09 June 2016, Lot 73

Known seller: French art collectors and patrons, Zeineb et Jean-Pierre Marcie-Rivière


About The Artwork


First found on Greek vases of the 5th century BC, the motif of a dancing faun (or satyr) became a regular feature in Hellenistic and Roman sculpture. Although to our ideas of indulgence, hedonism and release might seem antithetical to religious worship, dancing was a key step towards ecstasy in the Dionysian, or Bacchic, rites of the classical world. 


Despite its missing limbs and head, the torso of one such celebrant demonstrated the continued lure of the ancient mysteries when it sold at Christie’s for almost €3m, exceeding its estimate by ten times! The powerfully sculptured faun is naked, his muscular torso turning to the left, one arm raised, the other lowered to accentuate his athletic form. On top of its sensuous appeal, the statue has a colorful history: past owners include Neoclassical painter, Gavin Hamilton, British author and intimate of Marie Antoinette, Quintin Craufurd, from whom they were seized during the French Revolution, and Robert Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, in whose family portrait the statue can be seen, still with its eighteenth-century restorations. 


7. Bust Of Zeus Or Asclepius, Rome, 2nd Century AD

Realized Price: USD 3,130,000


asclepius marble bust imperial rome
Placed on a body restored in the eighteenth century, the head of this bust is from Imperial Rome


Realized Price: USD 3,130,000

Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 03 June 2015, Lot 34

Known Seller: British sculptor and art collector, Peter Hone


About The Artwork


The Roman head sold at Sotheby’s for over $3m in 2015 might already be familiar… It is one of the most widely recognized images of an ancient god, having been used as a model for restorations, drawings, engravings, casts, and copies since the eighteenth century, when Italian restorer, Vincenzo Pacetti, acquired and reproduced it. It was used, for example, as the model for Pacetti’s restoration of the colossal statue of Asclepius in the Villa Borghese, which is one factor in the ongoing confusion about whether it originally represented Zeus or the god of medicine.


It is thought that the original head was copied by a sculptor of the Roman Empire from an earlier bronze statue of the god. This prototype probably dated from the fourth century BC, during the time of Alexander the Great, whose hair is often depicted in the same style, curled and centrally parted. Together with its artistic significance as the model for countless reproductions and new pieces of art, the beauty of the bust makes it one of the most valuable antiquities sold at auction in recent years. 


6. Stone Figure Of Sekhmet, Thebes, 1403-1365 BC

Realized Price: USD 4,170,000


sekhmet egyptian god graphite
A striking graphite figure of the ancient Egyptian god, Sekhmet, seated on a throne


Realized Price: USD 4,170,000

Estimate: USD 3,000,000 – 5,000,000

Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, New York, 08 December 2015, Lot 23

Known Seller: American businessman, philanthropist, and art collector, A. Alfred Taubman


About The Artwork


At over two meters in height, the graphite statue of the goddess Sekhmet strikes an impressive figure. Her sedate posture upon her plain throne, hands resting on her lap, one held open and the other clutching an ankh, contrasts against her head, which is that of a lioness. As the deity of warfare and healing, and the patron god of pharaohs, effigies of Sekhmet lined the courts and passageways of the great temple built by Amenhotep III at Thebes. 


It is thought that there were originally over 600 such statues, and although many of them would have been practically identical, each one remains an individual example of the aesthetic and technical skill of the ancient Egyptian sculptors and craftsmen. The value of the statue sold at Sotheby’s in 2015 for just over $4m was undoubtedly increased by the fact that it counted John Lennon among its previous owners.


5. Sculpture Of A Poet, Rome, 1st Century BC

Realized Price: GBP 4,174,500


roman marble statue poet toga
A statue of an unidentified Roman poet wearing a toga


Realized Price: GBP 4,174,500

Venue & Date: Sotheby’s, London, 04 December 2019, Lot 39

Known Seller: Dealer in ancient art, Hans Humbel of Galerie Arete, Switzerland


About The Artwork


In the ancient world, sadly unlike today, the poet was a highly respectable figure and some of the greatest icons of the classical civilizations were poets: Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, and Ovid, to name just a few. This sense of grandeur is perfectly embodied by a statue sold at Sotheby’s in 2019 for over £4m: the anonymous poet is seated with an almost military erectness in a pose not dissimilar to that of Jupiter in his enthroned statues; he is impressively draped in his garments, and bears a signet ring on his left hand; to clarify his profession, he carries a scroll and gazes out of the marble in studious contemplation.


The statue was made during the final half of the first century BC, during the Golden Age of Latin literature, and was designed as a funerary monument. In fact, it was actually hollowed out in order to contain the ashes of the deceased! These were not included when it was sold at auction…


4. Bust Of Emperor Didius Julianus, Rome, 193 AD

Realized Price: USD 4,815,000


didius julianus auction bust
A dynamic and lively bust of the Roman Emperor, Didius Julianus


Realized Price: USD 4,815,000

Estimate: USD 1,200,000 – 1,800,000

Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 29 April 2019, Lot 191

Known Seller: The estate of Patrick A. Doheny


About The Artwork


Selling for over twice its estimate at almost $5m, a larger-than-life bust depicts the lesser-known Roman emperor, Didius Julianus, as a mature man in military garb. Marcus Didius Severus Julianus ruled Rome for only two months and five days during the summer of AD 193, also known as “The Year of the Five Emperors.” 


In addition to a number of eminent positions at Rome, Didius Julianus had commanded legions and governed provinces across the empire before climbing to the top of the greasy pole, on the back of the murders of his two predecessors. Although he won the immediate support of the army with bribes of 30,000 sestertii for each soldier, his popularity soon waned and, like his forerunners, he too was murdered.


Originally, there was confusion about which of the five emperors of AD 193 the bust represented, but comparison with other known statues of Didius Julianus confirmed its identity. From the bump in his nose to each curling lock of hair, the artwork is meticulously detailed and incredibly well-preserved.


3. Quartzite Head Of Amen With Features Of Tutankhamen, Egypt, Ca. 1333-1323 BC

Realized Price: GBP 4,746,250


egyptian god amen pharaoh tutankhamen
The striking head of the Egyptian god Amen with the facial features of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun


Realized Price: GBP 4,746,250

Venue & Date: Christie’s, London, 04 July 2019, Lot 110

Known Seller: The Resandro Collection


About The Artwork


Tutankhamun is perhaps the most famous of the Egyptian pharaohs, largely thanks to his incredible tomb, rediscovered by Howard Carter in 1922. After ascending to the throne at the age of just eight or nine, Tutankhamun’s reign lasted little over a decade and was plagued by ill-health. His most significant acts were concerned with the restoration of religion, following its dissolution by his father, which consequently led to an improvement in diplomatic affairs. 


Like many rulers, Tutankhamun sought to associate himself with one god in particular, in this case, Amun, one of the most important deities in the Egyptian pantheon. His name itself is believed to mean “living image of Amun”, and the young pharaoh emphasized the connection by making dedications to the god, enriching his cults, commissioning new images of him, and perhaps even constructing a temple. 


The link between the ruler of men and ruler of the gods was further highlighted by the art created during his reign: a number of statues of Amun have been discovered which resemble the pharaoh. One such head, which shows Amun’s distinctive crown but the boy’s facial features, sold at Christie’s in 2019 for almost £5m, reflecting the religious, historic, and artistic value of these works.


2. Marble Statue Of The Emperor Hadrian, Rome, Ca. 117-138 AD

Realized Price: USD 5,950,000


hadrian emperor statue roman marble
A Roman statue of Hadrian showing his signature beard


Realized Price: USD 5,950,000

Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 29 October 2019, Lot 1023

Known Seller: British investment manager and collector, Christian Levett


About The Artwork


One of Edward Gibbon’s ‘five good emperors’, Hadrian ruled from 117 to 138. Although he won great popularity with the masses and with the rank and file of his army, the senate found him authoritarian and remote. It was perhaps for this reason that the emperor spent more time out of Rome than in it, traveling from Britannia to the Levant to oversee the administration of his domain.


In the pre-internet age, a leader had access to no more efficient methods of mass publicity than coins and statues. One of the first acts of a Roman emperor when coming to power was to arrange the printing of new coins bearing his likeness, and similarly, statues were deemed incredibly important for promoting and circulating his image across the empire. 


In 2019, Christie’s sold a larger-than-life statue of the Hadrian for the proportionately huge sum of almost $6m. Semi-nude to display his athletic body, standing in a powerful pose with one arm raised, and majestically draped in a robe, the statue is modeled on the heroes of legend, presenting the emperor as a competent and authoritative leader. Naturally, Hadrian is sporting a beard, which he is credited with introducing to Roman fashion.


1. Stone Relief Of A Winged Genius, Assyria, Ca. 883-859 BC

USD 30,968,750


assyrian stone relief
Ancient relief from Assyria showing a winged gypsum


Realized Price: USD 30,968,750

Venue & Date: Christie’s, New York, 31 October 2019, Lot 101

Known Seller: Virginia Theological Seminary


About The Artwork


Surpassing by leaps and bounds all the other pieces of ancient art sold at auction in recent years is an Assyrian relief that realized the incredible price of almost $31m at Christie’s in 2018. This made it the second most expensive piece of ancient art ever sold at auction, behind The Guennol Lioness, which was bought at Sotheby’s in 2007 for a staggering $57.2m.


Standing at seven feet in height, the supersized figure of the apkallu, or “genius,” was one of roughly 400 carved relief panels that lined the interior of King Ashurnasirpal II’s palace at Nimrud in Assyria. The divine figure of the apkallu was designed to resemble a royal portrait, creating a sense of sacred protection for the king, and no doubt intimidating visitors to his palace.  This impression was reinforced by the cuneiform inscription that covers the surface of the gypsum stone, listing the achievements of Ashurnasirpal and describing him as “the king of kings.”


The relief sold at Christie’s had been personally owned by Sir Austen Henry Layard, the archaeologist responsible for the discovery of the huge palace at Nimrud. Like the anonymous buyer, he clearly valued it as a monument to the skill and artistry of the ancient Assyrians. 


colored assyrian relief
A digital reconstruction imagining how the original pigmentation on the Assyrian relief would have appeared, via Christie’s


More On Ancient Art And Auction Results


These eleven masterpieces demonstrate the skill, knowledge, and artistry that thrived in the ancient art of Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Their survival across thousands of years shows the value placed on them by generation after generation, which continues to be proven today at the major auction houses. The staggering sums of money paid for these ancient art pieces are a testament to the lasting importance and appeal of an ancient. Click here for more impressive auction results from the last five years in Modern Art, Old Master Paintings, and Fine Art Photography

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By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.