Thursday, 23 May 2013

The seal of Alexander the Great -- part one

One of the greatest joys in being a collector is finding a great bargain. More often than not, it will be something that lacks proper identification. After all, people usually do not give things away.  Of course, ethics comes into the picture, so if I am offered something for sale by a member of the public and I see that it might be very valuable, I will identify it for the seller and offer them advice on what to do with it. Sometimes, the seller might ask me to handle the sale and I will usually ask for a small brokerage fee to do this.

All of my best bargains have come from auctions, and quite often I am the only person bidding who thinks the object might well be something very special. Every week I get many email auction notifications and if a sale seems interesting enough, then I will study the catalogue. I almost always bid only on on-line auctions where I can see the latest bids. Most of my buys of this nature are based on nothing more than a suspicion, and I am not always right. Sometimes, though, I am fairly sure of my identification.

A few years ago, I came across one of the greatest bargains of all and I was fairly confident in what I was looking at – a lead seal impression of Alexander the Great. The auction house did not specialize in this sort of material. Now, no one knows what Alexander’s seal looked like, even though we know that the man who
Posthumous portrait of Alexander the Great
Image courtesy of  Classical Numismatic Group, Inc

made all of Alexander’s seals was named Pyrogoteles. These seals would have been issued to certain people in the Alexandrine Empire for use on official documents, so there were probably quite a number of them made. The seal impression bore the name of Alexander (Alexandrou) and I was not the only bidder who had a tentative attribution because the price soon greatly exceeded what would usually be paid for an ancient Greek lead seal impression. I decided that my only hope of obtaining it was to snipe the auction in the last few seconds and to bid all that I could afford. To say that this made me rather nervous would be an understatement! Apparently, either my confidence or my budget was higher than at least one other bidder because I won the seal. Being confident about the attribution is one thing, but to supply good evidence for such an attribution is another matter and my research continued for another seven years!

Before I present all of the evidence, let us “fast-forward” to late last year: I often show objects from my collection to people whom I think might be interested.  These are often people that I might see frequently at various companies that I visit – I once even gave a presentation to a class at my daughter’s school. Usually the reaction is something like “Cool!” or “Wow! I've never held anything that old!”

Karmen holds the seal of  Alexander the Great
Karmen’s reaction was unlike any other. I placed the seal impression in her hand and told her what it was. She said nothing at all and just stared at it. It was her expression that surprised me the most. I would liken it to the expression you see in Raphael’s paintings where Mary is looking down at the infant Jesus in her arms. This was so unusual that I asked her about it. She replied that her mother was born in Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia.

Alexander the Great was born in Pella, the capital of ancient Macedonia – now in modern Greece. Political boundaries change over the centuries, but a sense of cultural belonging does not change with the boundaries – that attitude is mere nationalism. In fact, although Karmen’s mother came from Skopje, Karmen, herself, is Canadian – from British Columbia. This fact made no difference at all to the cultural connection she made with the object in her hand. Nor should it: cultural identity is a personal thing – it did not need the fact of Canada’s official multicultural policies, or a certain country’s name on a birth certificate, to exist.


  1. where is part 2,i have been waiting for over two weeks?

  2. Sorry Kyri, I've been switching over to a new computer/operating system. There is one article in the 'Collecting Early Celtic Art' series scheduled first, and then will come part 2 of the Alexander seal series. That will all start this week.