Hidden Treasures from the Vault

Engraved Gems from the Maxwell Sommerville Collection

By: Dietrich Berges

Originally Published in 1999

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Jewel and precious stones are normally kept in the Museum vault or behind bullet-proof glass. It is unusual, however, for an entire collection of engraved gems—often in exquisitely worked settings—to be kept from public view, languishing in obscurity for decades.

The background to this story is long, and leads back into the 19th century. It introduces us to Maxwell Sommerville, a man who established one of the most important collections of en­graved gems in the United States. He eventually bequeathed this collection to the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Maxwell Sommerville: A Collector and His Travels

Maxwell Sommerville, the son of Dr. Maxwell and Mary Fulton Sommerville, was born in i829 in Clarksburg, Virginia (Fig. 1). He was educated at Central High School in Philadelphia, graduating in 1847. In the following years, Sommerville devoted himself to business. As a partner in the Philadelphia publishing firm of Sherman & Co., he acquired a considerable fortune.

During the 1860s, Sommerville began to withdraw from business life, embarking upon long journeys which led him throughout the world: to Europe, northern Africa (Fig. 2), and the Near East. as well as China. Japan, India, Burma, and Thailand.

Sommerville, however, was no mere idler who passed his time traveling to exotic places. Rather, he was driven by a constant curiosity to explore the customs and practices of foreign lands, their religious idiosyncrasies, and, most importantly, all manifestations of mysticism: magic, spells, and accompanying mystical objects. In addition to his natural inquisitiveness, Sommerville was blessed with clear literary tal­ents. He wrote various accounts describing his travel experiences in a light and amusing style. Many of these episodes were illustrated in en­gravings done by his own hand. In these accounts, Sommerville’s true nature is revealed; he emerges as a tireless collector who would seize any opportunity to search out engraved gem­stones (Fig. 3).

Sommerville’s grandfather, James McAlpin, owned a collection of antique gems, which, in all likelihood, served as the basis for his collec­tion. Sommerville himself succeeded in acquiring stamp seals, cameos, and other en­graved gems during his many journeys. When traveling, he loved to examine the wares of local merchants, and then barter for them. As a result, the most important parts of Sommerville’s collection reflect the routes of his travels. The antique material, that dating prior to about the 4th century AD, comes pre­dominantly from Italian regions, as well as Egypt and the Near East. The post-classical pieces are primarily from Europe, and here again. Italy is particularly well represented.

Maxwell Sommerville was neither a trained art historian nor an archaeologist. His knowledge of antiquity was based on his solid “classical” education and supplemented by his own reading.

Sommerville was also a man of multiple interests. Because of his passion for religious history, he was fascinated by amulets and talismans dating from all periods. He acquired countless cameos and stamp seals from the post-classical period, and was particularly interested in those dating from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries ADC. The post-classical pieces from that era, many of which are of outstanding quality, constitute the most important part of his collection.

Sommerville established his collection quickly and on a grand scale. In the 1870s, the collection contained 1,000 pieces; a few years later it numbered 1,500; and by the time of his death in 1904, it had grown to 3,400 pieces. Sommerville, however, was not spared mistakes in the development of his collection. He was a dilettante in the field of archaeology and unfa­miliar with critical research methods. Thus, he acquired many pieces of dubious worth. Sommerville’s open, friendly, and trustworthy demeanor, combined with his abundant means and his feverish collection habits, made him the dupe of many a merchant.

Sommerville was convinced that his collection was both authentic and of the finest quality. In a 1893 portrait by Stephen Ferris (Fig. 4), he appears with a number of his precious stones, looking every bit the proud collector. Ironically, he is pictured with two of his most prominent forgeries: the “Jupiter Aegiochus” and the “Tri­umph of Constantine.” For Sommerville, the-acquisition of these two cameos represented a great investment, both in terms of personal effort and finances. He was proud to have pro­duced a small monograph on each piece. An exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1875 gave Sommerville the first opportunity to display his collection publicly. During this period, he many works, ancient these publications, as well as the guided tours of his collection, met with favorable public reception. From i888 to i891, his gem collection was exhib­ited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Luigi di Cesnola, the Metropolitan’s director at that time, was interested in putting Sommerville’s collection on permanent display.

At the same time, in his hometown of Phila­delphia, Sommerville was forging relationships with both the University of Pennsylvania and the University Museum. After 1891, the University Museum was entrusted with the permanent exhi­bition of the Sommerville collection, which, among its other riches, contained the inventory of an entire Buddhist temple (Fig. 5). Thus, the Sommerville collection is among the oldest in the Museum. In 1894, Sommerville was named Professor of Glyptology (the study of engraved gems) at Penn. The appointment appears to have been made in connection with his gift_ Addi­tional honors, including membership in various European learned societies, would follow.

It seemed that Sommerville had arrived at the zenith of his career; soon after, the first black clouds appeared on the horizon. Voices of doubt regarding the authenticity of his finds began to resonate throughout the ranks of the Museum—and they continued to grow louder. Perhaps the most emphatic voice was that of Stewart Culin, who was Museum director at the time. Distressed by the insults hurled at his collection, Sommerville complained that it was being unfairly neglected. In 1903, Stewart Culin left the University Museum. On May 5th, 1904, Maxwell Sommerville died while on extended vacation in Paris.

Among its other provisions, Sommerville’s will specified that a large endowment be left to the Museum for the upkeep of his collection. Of course, this provision was to the Museum’s great advantage. The story might simply have ended here; unfortunately, however, the Sommerville collection was not destined to enjoy a moment’s peace. Dramatic events involving the collection quickly unfolded. These events began in the fall of 1904., with a visit to the University Museum by Adolf Furtwängler, the eminent German archae­ologist. It was on this occasion that Sommerville’s gem collection caught the great Furtwangler eye.

Upon returning to Germany, Furtwängler gave an appraisal of the Sommerville collection before the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The notes from his trip were published in the Academy’s minutes in 1905. Furtwängler’s appraisal follows in its own inimitable style:

Here [i.e., the University Museum] one fiends a large collection of gems which belonged to Maxwell Sommerville. Sommerville is the author of the book Engraved Gems, their history and place in art; I refer to this book in my work Ancient Gems, volume III, page 4.34 as “marvelously hideous, the utterly useless work of a dilet­tante.” The collection is as grotesque as the book. It is comprised almost entirely of fakes. Through the good will of the mu­seum staff I was able to peruse the collection piece by piece. The few true antique stones in the collection are practically meaningless and worthless too. (Furtwangler 1905:254)

Back in Philadelphia. Furtwängler’s remarks could not have been more poorly received. His appraisal was not only undiplomatic; it was, in fact, completely unfounded. Having been un­fairly exposed and betrayed, the Museum staff felt compelled to fight back. They turned immedi­ately to the American ambassador in Berlin. ‘they wanted the embassy to arrange for another German expert to come and examine the collection. For reasons unknown, this reevaluation never took place. It is likely, however, that Sommerville’s circle of friends had been rallying against the deprecation of both the collection and its sponsor. In February 1909, University of Pennsylvania trustee Samuel F. Houston ar­ranged for the entire Sommerville collection—including the “Buddhist Temple”-to be displayed anew. With this powerful gesture, the situation appeared to have been resolved.

But not forever. The presence of probable forgeries left the collection stigmatized. Thus, at an unknown date, the Sommerville collection was removed from permanent display and banished to the storeroom. The collection has remained there until this day. Only once since then, in 1956, would representative pieces of the collec­tion be put on public display. This exhibition was accompanied by a short catalogue written by Cornelius Vermeule.

Highlights From Sommerville’s Collection of Antique and Post-Classical Glyphics

Due to the circumstances recounted above, practically no one outside of the Museum knew of the treasures languishing in the vault. Never­theless, the Sommerville collection is extremely rich. It boasts examples of virtually every type of engraved stone, and is representative of all historical periods. In addition to special types, such as amulets and talismans, the collection contains an abundance of post-classical cameos, in which the figures are carved in a layer above the background.

Given the sheer extent of the collection, one might assume that a certain percentage were of poor quality. This is not the case. The cameo with the portrait of an Italian noblewoman in courtly dress (presumably a Medici princess) reflects the high quality of these pieces (Fig. 6). Even Furtwangler admired these cameos.

The same can be said of the antique cameos found in the collection. Here, a fragment from a very large, ornamental cameo dating from the early Roman Imperial period deserves special recognition (Fig. 7). The seated figure of Jupi­ter, who is shown with a scepter and aegis, is intact. This fragment is of very high quality and can hold its own beside famous pieces in Euro­pean collections.

The largest part of the collection is com­prised of intaglio engraved stones. These are pieces in which the image is incised or engraved. They were originally used as seals. Within this category, the post-classical pieces are numerous and of outstanding quality. Examples from the period of European Neoclassicism, that is to say. the 18th and early 19th centuries AD, demand particular attention. During this period, a classi­cism more closely modeled on the forms of antiquity was established. This was, perhaps, a reaction to the baroque richness of the post-Reformation period. Modern archaeological research, which began in the middle of the 18th century, also encouraged these stylistic develop­ments by making authentic illustrative materials available.

The reflection of this movement can also be seen in the glyptic works of the period. Themes taken from ancient iconography appear over­whelmingly in these works. Excellent copies, as well as many first-rate forgeries, appeared during this time. The portrait of a bearded man with an oriental headdress must be placed in the latter category (Fig. 8). The portrait’s subject is either a Persian satrap or Paris, the son of the Trojan king Priam. While the signature suggests that the artist was Dioskourides, a famous stone-cutter at the court of the Emperor Augustus. neither the style of the piece nor the theme fits into his oeuvre.

The best stonecutters of the Neoclassical period proudly signed their pieces. Today, their works are among the most sought-after in the art trade. Among the stone-cutters of the time, members of the Pichler family may be singled out for their skill and the pure classicism of their work. Here, a signed portrait of Demeter, mod­eled after a famous portrait appearing on a coin from the Greek Sicilian city of Syracuse, serves as a testimony to the Pichler artistry (Fig. 9).

The quality of these pieces is breathtaking. As such, the worth of the Sommerville collections quickly becomes clear. It is probably the largest collection of classicistic seals and cameos in the United States. The collection contains fewer antique seals: barely 500 pieces are ancient in origin. This number, however, is hardly surpris­ing given the length of time that has elapsed since antiquity. One should also note that Sommerville had trouble competing with famous European collectors, who were able to send agents to antiq­uities markets in order to purchase the best pieces. Nonetheless, Sommerville was still able to acquire a large number of very interesting gems. A collection of this quality could no longer be assembled today. In this regard, the legacy of Maxwell Sommerville is also a genuine treasure.

Ancient Stamp Seals: Lasting Testimonies to Times Long Past

Antique intaglio engraved gems were always stamp seals, used to seal documents, letters, and contracts. In most cases, the images on the seals were taken from mythological themes and subjects.

The ancient seals found in the Sommerville collection come for the most part from Italian regions. They represent the entire spectrum of ancient artistry, offering a view into varying elements of artistic practice occurring on the Italian peninsula. The oldest examples are seals in scarab form. These pieces follow the Egyptian model, in which the image is engraved into the underside of a beetle-shaped form. The Punic and the Etruscan seals (Figs. 10 and 11) are in this form. The examples shown here belong to the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

Seals were made from semi-precious stones—mostly carnelian, sardonyx, or jasper—which were rare, expensive, and difficult to work with. For this reason, a great number of glass pastes were made during the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. These are ancient copies made in glass from the original cut stones. They served as inexpensive surrogates for the more costly individual seals. Today, these pastes are often the only remaining representa­tives of the lost originals. Thus, they serve as valuable testimonials for archaeologists. Fortu­nately, Sommerville acquired a great number of excellent glass pastes (Fig. 12).

It is particularly exciting to come across a seal that has long been considered lost. A large carne­lian depicting the sacrifice of a bull fits into this category (Fig. 13). In the center of the seal, a warrior stands with his armor, helmet, lance, and shield. Preparing for the sacrifice, he holds a patera (a shallow dish) over a round altar which Many seals from the Roman Imperial period have also been preserved in the Sommerville collection. Those dating from the time of the Emperor Augustus (31 BC-AD 14) are of especially high quality (Figs. 14-16). Again, mythological themes predominate. providing the background for the somewhat chilly classicism of the Augustan period.

The 1st century ADC saw a change in style. Fewer pictorial themes were employed, making room for a new, almost stereotypical imagery that would come to dominate the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. Representations of the deities were placed in the foreground. The figure of Victoria-Fortuna appears particularly often in pieces dating from this time (see Fig. 17). Fortuna, a fusion of many deities, embodied victory, happiness, and fertil­ity. She holds her attributes: a rudder, a sheaf of has been decorated with a garland. The sacrificial bull and two other figures are visible in the background. This piece was bought in Rome. In the mid-19th century ADC, it was documented there as a plaster impression. It is a very rare example of a Roman Republican gem cutting from the 2nd century BC, and was thought to be lost until now.

A thorough examination of the seal suggests that it has been altered: the smaller figure in the left background appears to have been added in the early 19th century. In the course of this alteration, the warrior’s shield was doubled, the lower portion of the lance was removed, and the background figure was given a leg in its place. Finally, the hatching on the ground and rim was added. These hatched elements were borrowed, anachronis­tically, from archaic scarab glyptics of the 6th century BCC. They were intended to give this seal a particularly ancient appearance and to raise its market value. Today, we know more about these cases and are less likely to be caught unawares. wheat, and a cornucopia. From a stylistic per­spective, this image of Fortuna forms a bridge to the representational style of the later Imperial period. During this period, details were increas­ingly overlooked, and the most important parts of a given image were reduced to sketchy forms.

In Furtwängler’s time, it was customary to characterize such works as “late and bad.” If, however, we look at two more pieces dating from the Imperial period, we can expose the short­sightedness of this assessment. These stones were, indeed, cut in a masterful and evocative style.

The first stone shows the portrait of an aris­tocratic Roman woman of the late Antonine period (ca. AD 170-180). The woman is dressed in rich clothing, and has styled her hair accord­ing to the courtly fashions of the day (Fig. i8). In terms of representational practice, the second piece goes one step further (Fig. 19). Here, the goddess Demeter-Ceres appears in a chiton, holding a cornucopia and a bowl of fruit. The representation of detail has been reduced to a minimum, and upon first glance. the piece seems to have been made hastily. In actuality, the stone was engraved with the greatest expertise. All of the important pictorial elements have been rendered in a shorthand but precise representa­tional form.

In treasuring pieces of this sort, Sommerville was clearly ahead of his time. Only today can we appreciate the value of his legacy, and see the Sommerville collection in its true light. It seems to have taken more than a century for Maxwell Sommervilles wish, originally uttered in 1889. to be realized: “Then I may hope that an interest will be awak­ened in my subject, and many may enjoy years of pleasant research.”


I am grateful to Fred Schoch of the Museum Photography Studio who is responsible for all the photographs of the gems. I am also grateful to Dr. Elfriede Knauer for her skillful review of the trans­lation. Special thanks are due to Dr. Donald White and all the colleagues of the Mediterranean Section who supported my research at the Museum.


Cite This Article

Berges, Dietrich. "Hidden Treasures from the Vault." Expedition Magazine 41, no. 1 (March, 1999): -. Accessed June 18, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/hidden-treasures-from-the-vault/

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