Visual Arts24 Jan 2008 01:35 am
In the history of high-yield speculation, the asking price for the Venus de Milo (or Aphrodite of Milos) may be just this side of Manhattan’s infamous glass bead appraisal, but the 1,300 piastres (roughly 600 current US dollars) paid for the Hellenistic masterpiece certainly typifies the kind of bargain basement price that would have jaws dropping at the Antiques Roadshow. Some perspective vis-à-vis other artworks is helpful here: Jackson’s Pollock’s No. 5—a masterpiece in its own right, but not on the order of the Venus—sold for $140 million in 2006, about 233 thousand times the statue’s buying price. (Of course, barring a major cataclysm, it is difficult to envision the Louvre selling off its most famous goddess.)
So, who was the eagle-eyed art dealer able to wrangle such a steal and is he available for private consultation? Well, unfortunately for the prospective home improvers among us, Jules Dumont d’Urville has been dead for well over a century and the Greeks have long since wised up to the value of their patrimony. Not so, though, in 1820, when the French naval officer and gentleman classicist spotted the recently unearthed statue while exploring rural Milos. He immediately grasped its value and insisted on its acquisition. His captain, less fond of and knowledgeable about antiquites, was unwilling to make room in the cargo bay for the Venus. The peasant islanders who had agreed to sell the sculpture to the frenchman grew impatient and cut a deal with a local priest instead (for well under 1,300 piastres!).
Good thing then for the greater glory of France, recently bereaved of the Medici Venus, that Mssr. d’Urville was a persistent man. Upon reaching Constantinople, he contacted the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, one Marquis de Riviere, who recognized a deal when he saw one. After some tricky negotiations that resulted in the whipping of no fewer than two completely blameless Milesians, the goddess was in French hands as securely as the apple in her own (hmm, another story for another day).
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