Desmond Morris is best known as the author of The Naked Ape, but it is another animal entirely that will take centre stage when part of his extensive collection of treasures goes under the hammer at Bonhams’ Antiquities Sale at New Bond Street on Wednesday July 3. A large Persian cylindrical pottery jar dating from about the late third to the late second millennium BC (estimate £20,000-£30,000) is decorated with three hunting scenes, including a small image of a hunter with a dog, one of the first known depictions of a canine on a lead. “The dog has a collar and curly tail and is in competition with the shaggy-coated wolf, which is bristling on the other side of the vase with a characteristically horizontal tail. It gives us an insight into how these people went hunting – with a herding dog and a hunting dog,” says Morris.
Dr Morris’ collection of antiquities comprises some 3,000 pieces, and this auction of a selection of items from it is part of a larger exercise in downsizing following the death of Ramona, his wife of 66 years, in November. He will be moving from his home in Oxford to Ireland to be close to his son. Books and paintings have already been sold, and now it is the turn of the antiquities, an area that became a passion for Morris following a visit to the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia decades ago. Cypriot, Roman, Persian and Canaanite objects will all be in the sale. “It is an honour to offer the collection of Desmond Morris,” says Francesca Hickin, Bonhams’ head of antiquities department. “Desmond’s book on Cypriot art is the definitive volume on the subject and this is a collection that has been assembled with knowledge and with love.”
Of the collection, Dr Morris says: “I saw these amazing pieces, extraordinary shapes that were so creative and imaginative. I fell in love with them instantaneously. It was the inventiveness of the way in which they would put little figures all the way around the rim of a bowl, which were all doing things such as making bread. It was like a strip cartoon of ancient life.”
Other highlights include a Canaanite bronze figure from the Bronze Age (£7,000-£10,000), circa 1500-1200 BC, shown with bent arms holding two offering vessels. He is wearing a pleated kilt and conical hat that could come from Anatolia, with enlarged facial features and a double piercing in his right ear. There is also a Cypriot terracotta horse (£800-£1,200) with a harness and trappings, painted with black stripes, now faded, as well as a large Daunian pottery olla (£2,000-£3,000), circa 5th century BC. This jar is decorated with geometric designs and handles in the shape of hands.
And, given Dr Morris’ long-standing interest in anthropology, perhaps it is not surprising that there is also a series of Iranian Amlash female figures (£2,000-£3,000) with broad hips and pronounced buttocks. “They display steatopygia, today known as the Kardashian syndrome,” says Desmond Morris. “It was a fatty deposit that protected the females from starvation. But it was also visually very dramatic. The strange thing is why do these figures found in Iran have steatopygia. I’m guessing it’s a feature of the prehistoric mother goddess and that they were used as lucky charms, carried to ensure pregnancy.”