Armour museum's helmet auction rewrites the record books
People have been collecting helmets for thousands of years, with the finest specimens either closely held or having long ago gone to museums … so when the world’s finest private collection sold at Christie’s this week, it rewrote the record books with seven of the top 20 prices of all-time.
British collector Christian Levett spent many decades assembling his collection of arms and armor, eventually creating his own museum for the collection: the Musée d'Art Classique de Mougins. When the museum decided to change its focus, Levett put the entire collection up for auction, and on January 30, the helmet collection sold at a New York Christie’s auction entitled “Arms and Armour from the Mougins Museum of Classical Art, Part I.”
The prize of the collection was a 1,900-year-old Roman Iron, Brass And Copper Helmet that is astonishingly well preserved. The helmet had been the centerpiece of the world-renowned Axel Guttman Collection and was acquired by Levett from the heirs to the Axel Guttmann estate in 2013. The helmet has spent almost the entire last decade on display at either Musée d'Art Classique de Mougins (2013-2018 and 2022-2023) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2018-2022) in New York.
The helmet became the second most expensive military helmet in history when it sold for US$1,260,000 on January 30, 2024. It is second now at auction to only the famous Crosby Garrett Roman Bronze Cavalry Parade Helmet (c. late 1st - early 2nd Century A.D.) that sold at Christie’s for GBP2,281,250 (US$3,629,469) in October 2010.
Readers may find the helmet a little difficult to recognize without its cheek-guards (buccula). The buccula were not found with the helmet so it is being exhibited without them so the familiar shape of the helmet might not be initially evident. As only two helmets of this type have ever been found, and neither were found with their buccula, it’s difficult to picture exactly what the helmet would have looked like in situ.
Fortunately, a few years ago, a master craftsman who has crafted hundreds of exact replicas of history’s helmets, decided to create a copy of the famous helmet with the buccula he believed would have completed the helmet.
Royal Oak Armoury is a boutique, quality-focused Canadian producer of replica arms and armor, headed by master armorer Jeffrey Hildebrandt. Hildebrandt maintains a massive reference library, and as the company’s web page puts it, he has an “obsessive attention to detail (that) accounts for the notable accuracy and craftsmanship of everything that leaves our workshop.”
There are images of the helmet on Royal Oak Armoury’s Facebook page, and a close up examination of those images will help to convey the magnificence of the helmet in its entirety.
Another of the top sellers at the auction was this Greek bronze Corinthian helmet which fetched $478,800. One of the inevitable consequences of having such a large cache of highly desirable objects sold at the same time is that the auction becomes more like a player draft than a regular auction - museums are sadly forced to run at a profit these days, and the funding to educate and explore our heritage is often restricted beyond simple market forces. A similar Greek bronze Corinthian helmet sold at Christie's in June 2020 for USD $855,000 at an antiquities auction where it was the star of the show.
Perhaps the biggest story is the sheer magnitude of the collection, and the impact it has had on a very mature marketplace. Our top 20 most valuable helmets list saw seven new entrants inside a few hours and you can see from the dates on which the other most valuable helmets sold, the most coveted examples don’t come to market often.
You can find all of the lots sold on January 30 on the Christie's web page.