Bust of Antoninus Pius

Marble bust of the emperor Antoninus Pius bought by Getty Museum.

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The 3ft 3in (97cm) bust of the emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161AD) is reputed to have only been first documented in 1851 when it was bought in Naples by Robert Martin Berkeley (1823-97) and Lady Mary Catherine Berkeley (1829-1924) while on honeymoon. They paid £44 2s for it from the Naples dealer Raffaelle Barone.

It had previously been unknown to scholars or the public until then.

Berkeley brought it for his estate at Spetchley Park, Worcestershire, where it remained until last year when it was offered at Sotheby’s Ancient Sculpture and Works of Art auction in London December 6.

It sold for a hammer price of £6.5m (or £7.7m including premium), ten-times its low estimate, as reported in ATG issue no: 2572.

It had been acquired by Robert Martin Berkeley (1823-97) and Lady Mary Catherine Berkeley (1829-1924) while honeymooning in Italy in 1851. They paid £44 2s for it from the Naples dealer Raffaelle Barone.

Export licence

An export licence for the bust has been applied for from Arts Council England to take the bust to the US. Once that has been successful, it will go on display at the Getty Villa’s Later Roman Sculpture gallery in Los Angeles with its selection of other Antonine period portraits.

The bust was created sometime after Antoninus ascended the throne in 138. Carved from a single block of fine-grained white marble, it shows the emperor as a mature man with distinct facial features, a full, neatly trimmed beard and thick curly hair.

Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle, directors of the J Paul Getty Museum, said: “This exquisitely sculpted and remarkably preserved portrait ranks among the finest of more than 100 versions of Antoninus’ image that have survived from antiquity. 

“The bust adds a new highlight to the series of high-quality imperial portraits at the Getty Villa, including the full-length statue of Antoninus’ wife Faustina the Elder and the busts of Augustus, Germanicus, Caligula, and Commodus.”

Dynasty of the Antonines

Born in Lanuvium to a family that had migrated to Italy from a city in southern Gaul (what is today’s Nîmes in France), Antoninus was not groomed to become emperor. However, at the age of 51, following a career as governor of the province of Asia and as Roman senator, he was adopted by Emperor Hadrian to be his successor. Antoninus’ long and exceptionally peaceful reign brought great prosperity to the Roman Empire and the economy, culture and artistic production flourished. The emperor, known as one of the so-called Five Good Emperors,  started the dynasty of the Antonines, which lasted for more than two generations and ended with the death of Commodus in 192. 

Jens Daehner, associate curator of antiquities at the J Paul Getty Museum, said: “Many objects in our collection were made in the Antonine period, as it is known today, including portraits, mythological sculptures, sarcophagi and numerous other works.

“The bust of Antoninus provides a firmly dated visual reference for what characterised Roman aesthetics during that period. On display in our galleries, the bust will convey to visitors how, for example, Antonine sculptors carved drapery folds, used drills to give texture to hair or incised the eyes of their sitters.”

Museum acquisitions

Top museums have been busy buying at auction recently. Both the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum bought bronzes at auction in January, as reported in ATG issue no: 2579.