Antiquities in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: A Brief Review

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are among those North American art museums fortunate to display good quality collections of ancient Mediterranean and related antiquities. The Museums’ antiquities collection is housed in the Legion of Honor, with its spectacular views over the Golden Gate, the City of San Francisco itself, and across to Marin County. The collection consists of approximately 1,000 objects ranging in date from Bronze Age to Byzantine, represent nearly every type of material and cover a wide geographic reach from Egypt and the Near East to Western Europe.

For those living in the densely populated San Francisco Bay Area or Northern California generally, there are several options for viewing ancient art. The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose offers a vast, if rather poorly displayed collection of Egyptian antiquities. UC Berkeley’s Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology offers a modest but very high quality selection of Egyptian and Classical antiquities. And now the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento maintains a good quality collection of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and other Mediterranean antiquities, thanks in large part to donations and other efforts by the Chris Maupin Trust for Ancient Art. Still, on the whole, the Legions’ antiquities collections are the most balanced and largest on display in Northern California. Most of this collection was acquired in the early 20th Century, especially through the gifts of M. H. de Young, founder of the de Young Museum, and Alma de Bretville Spreckels, wife of sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels. She had lived in Paris just prior to the outbreak of the First World War and met many acclaimed artists, including Auguste Rodin (many of his works are in the Legion today). With her husband’s backing, Spreckels determined to create a new museum for San Francisco, modeled on the Palais de le Legion d’Honneur in Paris. In addition to her own gifts, the new Museum, opened in 1924, received art from the French government and the Queen of Romania and the Queen of Greece. Many smaller gifts have been made since then.

Despite offering a very good selection of ancient art, particularly Egyptian and Roman antiquities of all sorts and Greek ceramics, the relatively small portion of the collection on view at any time is today relegated to display cases along the walls of a broad corridor in the lower levels of the Legion; a corridor that also contains access to the Legion’s theater and restrooms, bookstore, porcelain and other collections. This arrangement denies the visitor the opportunity to view works from anything more than one direction. The rather extensive collection of Roman glass is also hindered by the fact that nearly all of it is highly iridescent. This may have been due to the collecting preferences of Alma Spreckels or the Queen of Greece, from whom she acquired most of the Museum’s Roman glass. In any case, this selection prevents the visitor from seeing Roman glass as it would have appeared in its original condition.

In its favor, the Museum does have a support group for the antiquities collection, the Ancient Arts Council. The group sponsors lectures by art historians, classicists and archaeologists on a regular basis, offers travel discounts and private tours of the collection, and more. Here is a link to the Council’s website: http://www.ancientartcouncil.org/membership

The following images, all taken by the author, offer some insight into the quality of the Legion’s collections. For many more antiquities images from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco online database go to: http://art.famsf.org/search?f[0]=field_art_image_available%3A1&f[1]=field_art_department%3A718

Egyptian antiquities

Egyptian shabtis of the New Kingdom and Late Dynastic Periods

Egyptian Antiquities

Mummy mask and pectoral from the Fayum. Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC

Egyptian antiquities

Section of mummy cartonnage, 21st Dynasty, 1069-845 BC

Egyptian antiquities

Winged scarab in polychrome faience. Late Dynastic Period.

Luristan antiquities

Cheek pieces in the form of winged sphinxes. Bronze. Luristan, western Iran, early 1st Millennium BC

Cypriot antiquities

Cypriot bi-chrome footed pottery goblet, 725-600 BC

Cypriot antiquities

Pair of Cypriot lustrous red pottery spindle bottles, 1400-1230 BC

Greek South Italian Antiquities

Greek South Italian (Apulian) black glazed guttus, 4th Century BC

Greek antiquities

Attic red figure lekythos (left) and alabastron (right), Athens, first half of the 5th Century BC

Hellenistic gold jewelry, Roman gold jewelry

A Greek Hellenistic gold and carnelian necklace (outer) and a Roman 3rd Century AD gold, sapphire and garnet necklace (inner)

Roman glass, ancient glass

Roman glass flasks, early 1st Century AD, the central flask marbled, the others highly iridescent.

Roman antiquities

Roman marble sarcophagus, Italy, 3rd Century AD

Byzantine mosaics, Byzantine antiquities

Early Byzantine mosaic panel featuring a peacock. Western Asia Minor, 5th or 6th Century AD

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