The world's oldest autograph by a famous person

From Olympia comes the depressing news that armed thieves have stolen a pile of stuff from the nearby museum.  I've been waiting for a list of what's lost, but the only description I've seen is "60 or 70 statuettes".  If so, I'm almost relieved.  The statuettes are probably of athletes and gods, and of incalculable value.  But in that same museum is one of my favourite archaeological pieces, and it's not a statuette; it's the ancient equivalent of an office coffee cup.

One of the greatest sculptors of the ancient world, possibly the greatest, and certainly one of the greatest artists in all of history, was a fellow by the name of Phidias.  You might not have heard of Phidias, but you've certainly heard of his work.  Phidias was the guy who made the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the mega-huge statue of ivory, gold and ebony, that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Phidias also made the statue of Athena that went into the Parthenon.  It's given to few men to create one wonder of the world.  Phidias worked on two of them.  (Strictly speaking, it's the Parthenon itself and not the Athena that's the wonder in Athens, but frankly, Phidias was close enough to the action to get a tick there too.)

Back in 1958, when they were excavating the workshop in Olympia, the archaeologists uncovered a broken piece of pottery cup.  When they turned it over, they got a shock, because scratched into the bottom were these words:


They had discovered the personal cup of Phidias.  It's almost impossible to get a decent picture of the writing on it.  In the museum the cup's upright, with a mirror to show the inscription.  Here's a picture from Oxford University.  

If you look closely you'll see letters scratched in white on the base.  The first word is this: Φειδίας

It seems the problem of cups being stolen from the office kitchen stretches back to ancient times.  Phidias probably made the cup himself on a rainy Sunday (when you're the world's greatest craftsman, you can do these things) then scratched his name into it so his co-workers wouldn't make off with his nice cup.  This means two things:

  1. You are looking at a Phidias original, be it ever so humble.
  2. To the best of my knowledge, this is the world's oldest autograph by a famous person.

The value of this thing is beyond imagination.  I don't know what it would fetch in an auction, but to call this piece of broken pottery irreplaceable would be a major understatement.  


Stephanie Thornton said...

Wow! Very cool!

Sadly, this reminds me of the looting at the Cairo Museum this time last year. I only hope nothing of major value disappears from Greece.

Sarah W said...

That theft is monstrous -- let's hope they were dumb enough to leave this cup. And to try to sell the statuary on eBay.

(Psst: I'm reading about Theophrastus at the moment -- which is half your fault anyway -- and I'm so disappointed that he and Socrates weren't contemporaries . . . I can imagine these two skinny, hyperintelligent kids driving Nico nuts)

Gary Corby said...

I guess it depends whether the thieves were just thugs, or whether they were hired by a private collector.

If they went in with a shopping list from an unscrupulous dealer or collector then it's hard to believe the cup of Phidias would survive. But the cup's so utterly unique that it could never be sold; if they were looking for antiquities to market then they'd go for the more generic stuff.

Gary Corby said...

Theophrastus would make a terrific detective for someone! He was the successor of Aristotle and a very bright lad in his own right.

You're right there's no chance they could ever meet. Nico would've been over a hundred when Theophrastus was born.

Gary Corby said...

I should have added that Greek security leaves something to be desired. A couple of years ago someone stole the capital off the top of a column at the Olympic site.

Those things probably weigh a couple of tons, but somehow the guards failed to notice the thieves, the crane required to lift the stolen goods, or the truck with the stolen item as it drove out the gates.

RWMG said...

How do we know that Phidias the cup owner was the same as Phidias the scupltor? Despite a one letter difference in our names and rather more than 50 years in our ages I was quite often asked when i was younger if I wrote "I, Claudius".

Gary Corby said...

It's possible there were two (I guess the plural would be Phidiasai). But I'm not aware of any archaeologist who's questioned it.

With the cup found in the workshop, in the right place at the right time, a proper narrative of the universe requires this to be the One True Phidias.

Amalia Dillin said...

I've never understood why people would steal from their own heritage and history.

That cup is AWESOME. Finding something so personal, that Phidias must have held and used daily, is kind of mind blowing. The fact that these kinds of artifacts still exist, so many years later, really connects us to the past and shows us that these were PEOPLE, not just names. I love this kind of stuff.

dipylon said...

The inscription reads: "ΦΕΙΔΙΟΕΙΜΙ" (Pheidiou eimi, "I am of Pheidias"). The plural of the name would be ΦΕΙΔΙΑΙ, Pheidiai, or, in a more latinized fashion, Phidiae.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks, dipylon!

I haven't seen an updated list of what was taken.

Marco said...

You'll be (somewhat) relieved to know that the theft happened at the Museum of the Ancient Olympic Games. Phidas' cup is in the Olympia Museum, Olympia's main museum and a few miles away from the one where the theft took place. I read in the London papers that it appeared the thieves were opportunists and just grabbed whatever was near to the holes they had smashed in the case. The real tragedy is that they just stuffed their loot into a rucksack, no doubt damaging them - scratches in the statuette's patina, maybe even a dented finger? It's unthinkable.

Hopefully the theft wasn't an order from a wealthy client, and the stolen items will be recovered in the near future. Greece is suffering so much right now, the last thing they need is their magnificent heritage to be looted.

Gary Corby said...

Ah, some real news. Thanks for that.

If they're opportunists, they probably don't even know how to offload the goods.

Much appreciated on the update. Thanks Marco.

Liza said...

Good news, Gary: the police just announced they have discovered the identity of one of the thugs! By the way, here's the official link to the stolen artifacts list. It's in Greek but there are also photos of them:

Gary Corby said...

Wow, thanks Liza!

And welcome to the blog, and Marco too, by the way (I think this is the first time you've both commented...).

I might extract the pictures from that document and post them.