PH sends me two pieces of ceramics in the style of Attic figural (Greek) vase painting. PH wants to know if he has something of ancient history, dating from the 6th century BC, worth millions, or a simple keepsake of a relative’s visit to Athens. He has some nice tourist vases from the 20th century. A dead giveaway is the two little lead pieces hanging from the handles. These little bits of lead are a 20th century Greek (honest) gesture meaning “copy.”
PH’s first vase shows Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, and wine. He is well built and naked, showing him to be powerful, bearded, and virile. He carries his attributes, a Thyrsus, a staff of giant fennel, which is wound around ivy vines and leaves, topped with a pinecone. He speaks to all things wild, wearing a leopard skin over his naked, massive shoulder, and carries a krater for wine. He is not only the god of wine, of course, but of madness, theater, and ecstasy. One of the three Dionysius figures carries a grape bag over his shoulder. If PH’s relatives were visiting Greece, they'd have known this recognizable god.
The other vase shows Herakles, a god for the Greek visitor, holding his attributes, a club and a lion skin. The skin of the Nemean Lion refers to the first of his famous labors. Also on the vase is a female figure who is eyeing his lion skin: that is Xenodice: Herakles killed her father, and later, her too. Although these are in the style of at least 580 BC, these vases are souvenirs only, but with a great story.
We did not know much about the production centers of early Attic pottery until 1852, when an area of Athens was demolished for a building project. German scholars discovered the Kerameikos section of the 6th century BC, the potter’s quarters in Athens. The 19th century scholars found the workshop of the Jena Painter, whose red and black works are now at the Fredrich Schiller University of Jena. Some of these vases are signed with two signatures, one for the painter, and one for the potter. The scholars could trace back some of the signatures to slaves, employed in the production.
We think of the painters as being the artists, above the skill of the potter, but in fact, the painters were the apprentices, hoping to graduate to the level of potter. The form is of utmost importance, and is a clue to the love of shape and mass in that early culture.
Vase painters were, in that early time, not considered artists but artisans, and their works were imported and traded. Some of the painters were literate, as shown by the naming of some of the gods and figures on ancient vases, but some had faux letter marks in the style of Greek lettering.
The figure of Dionysus on PH‘s vase is significant, because 6th century BC artisans made these ceramics for the Symposia. What a wonderful thing it must have been to experience such an event, not frequented by artisans, but restricted to upper class educated men. First, one dined on elegant lounges with these elegant ceramics for wine and food, and dined off precious metal platters. Then the highly decorated black and red kraters for wine only were bought in by the servants. Drinking wasn't merely part of dining: it accompanied the later conversation, loosening the lips, enlivening the appreciation of dancing, music and learned dialogue, and lustful thoughts.
Almost all households in the 6th century BC had ceramic vessels, as well as wooden platters for eating, but only the wealthy could afford elegant painted ceramic pieces.
The most interesting fact of all is that these red and black pots are found widely in the ancient world: the export market was lucrative. Scholars say that the only subject matter that was NOT exported was images of Greek Theater: trading partners Spain, France, and Portugal wouldn't have understood what magic happened on a Greek stage of that time.
PH, the market for tourist vases made in the 20th century like yours is not strong, but some of the early copies from the 18th and early 19th century are in demand. You could sell them today higher than you could have 10 years ago, because the midcentury modern market seems to like these copies. The value? $50 each.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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