Friday, November 12, 2021

An Auction in Holland Highlights Problems - the Sale of Holy Relics

I present a guest article, the first of two, by my friend Andrew Marlborough, who worked in the art gallery business for 10 years before joining seminary in England. He writes about sacred art and artifacts coming to auction, generally from estate sales; the hope here is that more people will start to look at auction houses close to them, so that many more such pieces might remain in Catholic hands. What is always surprising to me is the quality of pieces that are available at reasonable prices.

This week’s post comes prior to an auction in Holland in a few days’ time. If you want to bid for these, you can sign up to bid online here at the company's website

The list of pieces going under the hammer highlights includes not only some beautiful art and artifacts, but also ancient relics. The auctioneer is very likely unaware of the fact that canon law forbids such sales, and therefore, this puts Catholics in a dilemma. Canon law forbids the sale of holy relics, but does it forbid their purchase by Catholics in the case that they might otherwise be lost to the Church? Also, what steps can we take to try to avoid such relics being offered for sale by non-Catholics? Andrew suggests that people should make provision for them to be passed on to safe hands in their wills, and specify that under no condition should they put up for sale. As well as the relics of a member of the Byzantine Roman guard of the 5th century, referred to below, there are, for example, three large lots of multiple relics up for auction.

Andrew writes: Some readers will have seen my recent post about the alarming volume of Church art appearing at auction, especially sacred vessels and relics. Sometimes these are sold by the bigger well-known firms and get plenty of exposure, but more often they come to the market via one of the many small or medium-sized auction houses, which handle deceased estates and collections across Europe and America.

A good example, which highlights this, is the upcoming 16th/17th November sale at de Jager auction house in southern Holland. It is a typically mixed auction with all kinds of art and antiques but among these is a collection of quite important Catholic objects.

There are many sacred vessels in the sale. These include an impressive architectural-form monstrance (lot 1248) estimated at 1500 - 3000 Euros.
Of the chalices, several have patens and ‘scruple’ spoons included, such as a fine 19th-century silver-gilt and enamel gothic revival example (lot 1261), estimated at 1200-2400 Euros.
Another notable chalice is a fine and handsome tall Baroque style piece (lot 1264) expected to realize 600-1200 Euros. 
There is also a nice chalice and ciborium set (lot 1270), with accompanying paten and spoon, with an estimate of 900-1800 Euros. 
Of the ciboria, the finest is an ornate silver-gilt example (lot 1289), expected to make 450-900 Euros.
Also of great interest are two similar silver-gilt and jewel-encrusted Marian crowns (lot 1017), one of which was made in 1904 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The estimate for these beautiful and decorative crowns is 4600-9200 Euros.

The sale includes some early devotional wood carvings, such as a 16th century Flight Into Egypt (lot 1012) expected to sell for 3000-6000 Euros, a 16th century Nativity roundel (lot 1040) with the same estimate.
There is also an unusual 15th-century domestic shrine (lot 1256), the doors decorated with Saints Peter and Paul, and the interior revealing the Annunciation, carrying an estimate of 4600-9200 Euros.
Another carving of interest is a 14th-century small ivory Crucifixion scene (1055) expected to make 900-1800 Euros. 
The auction even includes a small (2m high) complete marble altar with tabernacle, suitable for a side chapel or small shrine (lot 1343), which the auctioneers estimate at 1200-2400 Euros.
Perhaps the most concerning thing is the number of reliquaries on offer, many containing relics. The most notable is a tripod reliquary containing a significant-sized relic of a 5th-century Syrian Saint named Auxentius (lot 1267), who served in the Equestrian Guard of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, before becoming a holy hermit. It is estimated at 450-900 Euros.
There are also several lots (1290, 1291, 1292) containing dozens of relics, which look genuine and of great interest.
The auction includes many other good things, including mixed lots of vestments (1247, 1263), metalware (1255), rosaries (1294), and other things.

It is especially tragic to see so many sacred vessels and relics sold on the open market, although it is an opportunity for Catholics to buy them back. But it really highlights the need to raise awareness that canon law forbids the sale of these, and also points to the need to encourage people leaving such things in their wills to specify that they are not sold on.

Anyone considering bidding in this or similar auctions should remember there are additional charges for the auctioneer’s commission, shipping charges, and sometimes import tax.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: