LONDON - Sotheby’s Erik Bijzet introduces a stunning Hunnic Royal gold collar from the 5th century.
How did this collar come to our sale?
About 18 months ago we were sent some images from our Vienna office who were unsure who should receive them – are they antiquities? Are they sculptural works of art? They finally got to me and my first response was “hold everything!” because of how fantastic they looked.
Where did the piece come from?
The collector was from Slovakia where they had moved recently, but the family have their roots in Kirgizstan and the piece had been in the same family since the late 19th century.
Where had they been prior to then?
We have documentation of an exchange between a merchant and a landowner in the 1890s when the collar seems to have been used as payment. That is the first record of them, and they are exchanged throughout the 20th century as dowries.
Eastern Hunnic, 5th century. A Royal Collar and Beads. Estimate £200,000–300,000.
In terms of the origins of this piece, would you say that relatively little is known about the Huns?
The Huns appeared in the 5th century and swept across Europe and even down as far as Egypt and accounts of the time reinforce the idea of them as barbarians. In St Jerome’s account, for instance, it is terrifying to read about the bloodshed and pillage. The Huns were an efficient war machine, and while there were not very many of them, they had incredibly fast horses, they were incredibly fierce and fantastic military tacticians and they took everybody by surprise.
These pieces seem to indicate a highly cultured and creative society – is that aspect of the Hun civilisation missed?
It’s hard because most of the tribes are nomadic, they built fortresses, but nothing is permanent and few traces of actual civilisation remain. What seems to have happened was that the Huns appropriated the jewellery techniques that had been left behind by the Scythians and the Romans, but reinterpreting them in a slightly more forceful style.
The importance of gold is underlined too – and it was something that was crucial to the Huns’ society. For example, it is recorded at one point that Attila gets paid 23,000 kilos of gold just to stay out of Constantinople. Naturally these Hunnic chieftains start wearing gold and displaying this wealth. There’s a Byzantine scribe who spends time in Attila’s camp, and describes them as beautifully dressed, with gem-set shoes, and performing wonderful ceremonies. There is no real sense of them being barbarians.
Does the reputation of them as barbarians come from the fact that the records were kept by their victims?
Most of the records of the Huns come from either Constantinople or Rome and then there is a lot of copying among those records, which is where the myth of their ugliness and their ferocity and their blood thirst mainly comes from. They were ideal scapegoats at a time when Christianity was getting a foothold in Europe.
Do you remember the first time you saw the piece?
Once the client realised it’s value they stored it in a bank vault in Slovakia – with three rooms before you pass into a cage, which was locked before a little safe deposit box was removed. Until then I’d only seen images – and they photograph brilliantly –but the moment you feel the weight of the gold, you get the sense of their condition and their wear and their age. It is an absolutely fantastic experience.
Erik Bijzet is a specialist in the Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art department, Sotheby’s London.