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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A Near-Disaster Meets a Fortunate Ending for Three Orantes at WAM

What is an orante figure and why are three so special to the Museum? To find out, let's take a closer look at these rare sculptural treasures from ancient Greek and Roman times.

The three large female terracotta statues pictured here (Figs. 1-3) were excavated in the late 1800s from ancient underground tombs in modern-day Canosa, a town in southeastern Italy that was heavily influenced by Greek culture in Antiquity (4th through the early 3rd centuries BCE). The role of these terracotta statues, which were once painted in bright colors, was to mourn or pray over the deceased laid out to rest in these family tombs. Their raised arms and hands are gestures of prayer. This is why they are known as orantes—from the Latin verb orare meaning to pray.

Fig. 1. South Italian, Orante Figure, 4th-3rd century BCE, Terracotta with white slip,
Stoddard Acquisition Fund, 2008.50

Fig. 2. Greek, Funerary Statue of a Young Maiden, 500–450 BCE, terracotta,
Museum Purchase, 1927.45

Fig. 3. Orante on loan to WAM (E22.10)

Today, fewer than 50 orante figures survive in museums around the world, and only eight of them are in U.S. museums, three of which are at the Worcester Art Museum. The three statues at WAM have fascinating modern histories filled with occurrences of disaster, good fortune, and serendipity alike.

Two orantes (Figs. 1 and 2) were purchased as a pair from a dealer in London in the 1920s. Sadly, one was severely damaged in transit across the Atlantic Ocean as one can appreciate in this photo (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. The Funerary Statue of a Young Maiden (1927.45) orante broke in many pieces
during transit from London to America.

Meant to flank two doorways, the pair no longer served this purpose after the damage, so the disappointed Museum director lost interest and the broken orante was put in storage while the intact one was sold to the New York auction house Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc. in 1946. This auction house was later purchased by Sotheby’s.

It was not until the mid-1990s—when objects conservation as a specialty in the field of art conservation was first introduced to the Worcester Art Museum—that the broken orante was rediscovered in storage and earmarked for conservation. During the treatment, WAM contacted Sotheby’s to inquire about the 1946 sale of the second intact orante in hopes of learning more about its current whereabouts.

Due to the rarity of this genre of sculpture, it was surprising to hear that an orante had been offered on consignment to be sold by Sotheby’s the previous week. I was asked to share archival photos of the sculpture in question and, to everyone’s amazement, it was the same orante WAM sold in 1946! I also learned that the sculpture was in Tasmania, Australia—literally on the other side of the world!

Fortunately for WAM, the owner of the sculpture and Sotheby’s agreed that the Museum could purchase the orante directly from the art dealer and thereby bypass the planned auction. 

After more than six decades, eight different owners (as we learned from Sotheby’s), multiple restoration campaigns, and a trip halfway around the world, the second orante was to be reunited with its former companion at the Museum. I went to pick it up in New York City and couriered it on a truck (Figs. 5 and 6) back to WAM in February 2008.  

Fig. 5. Picking up the second orante (2008.50) from Sotheby’s in New York City,
and bringing it back to Worcester.

Fig. 6.  Orante Figure, 2008.50

The second orante, which showed signs of having broken after it left Worcester, had been extensively restored so that the entire original ancient surface was buried under many layers of modern paint. At WAM, it was fully disassembled (Fig. 7), all the old restoration materials removed, cleaned, and reassembled. Susan, Costello, the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Objects Conservation, masterfully conserved and restored the reunited pair of orantes to their current state.  

Fig. 7. The second orante (2008.50) taken apart during conservation.

Well, the story continues because there is still one more orante to join the duo. While Sue was busy working on the two precious orantes in our conservation lab, I received a phone call from an anonymous person. He asked if the two ancient female statues in the conservation lab were rare. I replied that they are indeed quite rare. The caller then said, “I know of a dealer who has one for sale, but I can’t go into further detail” and hung up. That evening, as I was driving home to Somerville, I got stuck in a traffic jam and decided to take an alternate route. The detour took me past an art gallery in Cambridge, which had an orante in the window! Of course, I knew it was the one the caller spoke of earlier that day.  

A short time later the caller contacted me again to tell me he purchased the orante and would offer it to WAM on a long-term loan. He thought it would be ideal for WAM to have not one, not two, but three orantes. 

This third orante needed conservation treatment, which was skillfully undertaken by Sue’s successor, Kari Dodson. The three orantes were finally displayed for the first time in the initial Jeppson Idea Lab exhibition I curated in 2013. 

I invite you to visit these three ladies now on permanent view in our Greek Gallery when WAM opens again this fall. To learn more about them, see photos of the tombs where they came from, the exhaustive conservation process during which fascinating discoveries were made, and view images of orantes in other museums, please explore this content on the comprehensive iPad that accompanies the sculptures. In the meantime, this content is also available to view on our website.

Finally, this iPad features an interactive section where adults and children can help paint these statues with bright colors again!

—By Paula Artal-Isbrand, WAM Objects Conservator

August 5, 2020

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