Due diligence report on the Head of Hermes

By Georgina Tall

Due diligence is a very important process that must be undertaken whenever an object is about to move or has been moved within the art markets. The process involves a detailed examination of the object in question often with a particular focus on certain key areas which are of interest to the person commissioning the due diligence. This article exemplifies the practice of due diligence by carefully considering the following four components: time frame for when the object was created, who it was created by, where it is from and how it has moved through history from the date it was created or found to the present day.

In many cases, if not always, the results from a due diligence report can be used not just to establish the provenance of the object in question, but also to assess its market value for resale or display. Thus, the author of a due diligence report must be mindful of the impact that the information has on how an object is perceived within the art market. For example, an original painting by a famous painter could be worth millions of pounds but a copy of that painting may only be worth a few hundred or a few thousand pounds.

Similarly, the size of the market for the object could either be international or regional depending on the attribution. The motivation of the commissioning client (the person who the report is for) is key as this will help direct the research. For example, the client may be concerned about authenticity or what its ownership history is. Thus, when preparing a due diligence report, many surrounding factors and the impact of the report itself needs to be considered – not just the characteristics of the artefact.

The focus of this article is a due diligence report which was initially created as a part of my participation in the Sotheby’s Institute Art Crime summer course in 2019 and was ‘commissioned’ for a fictional client based on a real object using publicly accessible and academic resources, both tangible (libraries and archives) and digital. The challenge is that the sources available and the direction that a due diligence report may take are extensive and so this is just one example of how a research report can be written.

Commissioning Client

This due diligence report was commissioned by a private collector. He/she was interested in Roman sculpture from the 1st century BC to 1st century AD. They wanted to know more about the sculpture’s attribution as a depiction of Hermes, how it came to be in London, whether the age was correct and where it may have originated from. Of particular concern was how the statue ended up in London and whether it may have been looted pre-1960s.

The motivation behind these questions was to ensure the authenticity of the object, as the client planned on purchasing it as an investment. Similarly, if there was a chance that the head could be a Greek original with an older date of manufacture than described by the gallery, the monetary value of the bust would increase substantially.

Figure 1: Head of Hermes

Due Diligence Report on the Head of Hermes


The Head of Hermes, as the title would suggest, is supposedly a head of the Greek God, Hermes (fig. 1). It is a marble bust depicting a bearded man. Gallery X[1] is currently selling the artefact as part of their inventory of Roman sculpture. The head has a height of 37cm, width of 20cm and depth of 23cm.[2]

Included in the Gallery X photos are a series showing the head from multiple angles. From the images provided, it is evident that the nose has been broken off. There is also a large crack going down the right-hand side of the face starting at the hairline and ending near the broken off beard, with possible signs of a point of impact (fig.2). A “point of impact” is the place where a tool or other item has struck the surface of an object, causing an indent and subsequent fracturing from said spot.

If the head is from the 1st century BC to 1st century AD then it is highly likely that at some point it was damaged. It was either abandoned in Antiquity, damaged from the impact of debris in a natural event (e.g. an earthquake), or it received careless treatment when found (such as marks from an archaeologist’s mattock or trowel). The hair is wavy and falls around the face in a defined fringe of slight curls. Circling the head is a raised headband. The eyes are almond shaped with defined eyelids, positioned above prominent cheek bones and a full beard and moustache. The latter surrounds a mouth which has full, slightly curved lips in the shape of a smile. The ears are visible but not deeply carved and the beard has very little detail, which could be down to weathering and erosion of the marble.

On close inspection of the surface, there appears to be evidence of abrasion; tool marks appear in certain areas, such as in the curls of the fringe and the base. The left-hand side of the head has a very smooth and neat looking surface from the hairline to around the lips, which could suggest that this area of the face has been restored, especially compared with the surface appearance of the right-hand side of the face. The back of the head has a large crack too, however, there is a point of impact at the base of the neck that shows less evidence of erosion, suggesting this portion of the marble could have been more sheltered – perhaps from being placed near to a building or within an alcove.

Figure 2: right ¾ profile; back profile; left ¾ profile. The red circles highlight possible strike marks which have then created the cracks.


The gallery catalogue’s provenance record states that the head was “Formerly in the collection of a Gentleman residing in London. Acquired on the European art market in the 1960s”[3]. The head was then sold on the Bertolami Fine Arts website on 15th September 2017 for £38,000[4] – presumably to Gallery X, or a private individual acting on behalf of Gallery X.

Figure 4: left – Hermes Propylaios copy of c.430BC original (© President and Fellows of Harvard College)

The Gallery X claim to pride themselves on presenting “object[s] of taste and quality” and pay particular mind to “expertise and attention to provenance, in order to give customers a full guarantee of authenticity”[5]. If their claim can be wholly relied upon, then it is assumed that Gallery X undertook their due diligence in determining whether or not the Head of Hermes had legally been sold and exported, and that there was no risk of it having recently been looted.

The bust is thought to be Roman with an estimated date of manufacture (DOM) of the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD.[6] Interestingly, Bertolami Fine Arts do not label the head as “Roman”, whereas Gallery X do – even though both designate the same DOM. The head would appear to be a depiction of the Greek god Hermes, who was the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. Hermes acted as the messenger God for travellers, merchants and thieves, and is usually represented in Greek art either as a bearded man or as a young clean-shaven man[7].

Within a separate publication on statues, Gallery X provide a detailed description about certain artistic characteristics – along with justifications for labelling the statue as a head of Hermes. Likewise, the Bertolami Fine Arts website describe the head as…

“…an Archaistic head of bearded Hermes, the eyes outlined just in profile, the mouth characterised by the ‘archaic smile’ and encircled by elongated moustache; the hair, expressed through light curls that encircle the forehead, are held by a thin band.”[8]

The Bartolami Fine Arts website

These facial features are “reminiscent of the artworks created by Greek artists in the sixth century”[9]; the Archaic period in Greek Art History[10]. The publication uses the Hermes Propylaios[11] (fig. 3) as an example of Archaic features from the 6th century BC, and how the head of Hermes (on sale) also features variations that can be linked to Roman workshops, such as the styling of the hair – as wavy strands instead of corkscrew curls[12].

However, the Hermes Propylaios sculpture is actually a 1st century BC/AD Roman copy of a Greek bust from the late 5th century BC[13]. The Roman copy was created for the Acropolis in Athens and was intended to be a part of a herm to be displayed on the north side of the west façade of the Propylaea[14]. (A herm is a large pillar with a male head on top, normally placed at crossroads or gates.) The busts on herms usually represent a bearded Hermes, accompanied by male genitalia on the pillar. When herms first appear in the sixth century BC, they were used to provide protection to travellers and merchants. Gradually, by the time the Romans started to mimic, them they were used for more decorative purposes[15].

Figure 3: left – 6th cent. BC herm; right – Roman copy of a herm.

Research Paths

Following these object-specific observations on the nature and biography of the bust, I set about conducting a definitive research path. This required exploring a range of multidisciplinary sources, from evaluating the provenance documentation to undertaking thorough academic research.


Regarding publicly accessible databases for lost, stolen and/or looted art, the first database one should search is the Art Loss Register. However, in this object’s case, if it had been looted, this would have been pre-1960 and unlikely to have been registered or even known about prior to looting. My first step was to contact Gallery X for more information, but hopes for any extra information were dashed when the reply received was merely a copy of all the information already provided on the website page. As the 1960s European art market is such a broad statement it is not possible to try and narrow down an auction house, country or date.


The next step was to conduct a basic google image search for “bearded Greek/ Roman statue”, “bearded Hermes” and “Hermes statue”. There were thousands of results but very few actually looked similar to the object. A search was also made on the British Museum’s collections database which resulted in a few similar busts (table 1). From this research it seemed likely, just by superficial comparison of the images, that my Head of Hermes could be a copy of a Greek bronze – as the way that the fringe has been styled seems consistent with other Roman copies of Greek bronzes of the time period. However, consulting an expert/connoisseur for further confirmation on any stylistic features is necessary before any definitive remark can be made.

Table 1: A selection of google image results and from the British Museum collection listing their similarities and differences to the Head of Hermes

It’s important to note that archaeologists are more likely to excavate Roman copies of earlier Greek bronzes and not the original bronzes, as many bronze statues were melted down and destroyed[16] – either when a city was conquered (metal was required for new weaponry) or the icon being depicted was no longer relevant, such as at the turn of Christianity in AD100 when many Roman and Greek pagan statues were destroyed and replaced with Christian icons[17].         

Figure 5: top – left-hand side fringe of the head of Hermes with a red circle highlighting one of the drill holes; bottom – the base of the head viewed from the back

The next step taken to confirm whether this statue was indeed a Roman copy of a Greek bronze was to try and narrow down the age of the head. Romans only started to copy Greek bronzes in 1st century BC and copied bronzes from the 6th/5th century BC.[18] The stylistic features at first glance suggest that the head could be a Roman copy, but further analysis was undertaken for this study.

I considered whether the marks made by tools could help to identify when the head was carved, and thus determine if it truly is a Roman copy or an earlier Greek sculpture based on the use of the archaic facial features. In 600BC the Greeks were using iron tools such as saws, chisels and drills, and also adapted an Egyptian chisel into the claw chisel[19]. There are marks on the head and the base, as well as drill holes in the fringe and the nostrils that I took into consideration.

Unfortunately, as a part of the creation process, the majority of tool marks would have been smoothed over with emery or pumice[20]. Further research also confirmed that in the 1st century AD, when the Romans conquered Greece and started creating their copies, the tools that they used had not changed in the last 600 years. This meant that a date could not be distinguished from identifying the tools that were used[21].

Material analysis

The next route I took to better identify the date of the head was to research the material used to create it. In Greece in the 6th/5th century BC marble statues were made from either Parian or Naxos marble, which can be distinguished from each other by the size of the grain and their colouring[22]. When looking at how many marbles were available, and the length of time that they were available for commercial use, it may seem hopeless trying to find a date. However, the date when the quarry opened provides a starting point from which further research can be conducted (fig.6).

Similarly, many different types of marble can be eliminated due to their colouring, grain size, surface texture and visual appearance. However, Norman Herz believes that a provenance based on the aesthetics of the marble or an art historical analysis of the marble creates lots of controversy as “one’s Pentelic [marble] was another’s Hymettian [marble]”[23]. To resolve this, many catalogues have been published providing definitive descriptions of different types of marble listing their grain size, age of the quarry, colouring and other noticeable characteristics. For example, Pentelic marble has a medium grain and is weakly foliated, whereas Hymettian marble has a fine grain, is pure white in colour and can appear translucent when polished[24].

Figure 6: Timeline of when a type of marble was first used, all were used until after the 1st century AD (Diagram created using information from Herz, N. 2006, 283-284)

Marble is made up of different levels of calcium, carbon dioxide and magnesium which varies between each quarry. Following a field analysis with a hand lens and viewing a thin section under a microscope[25], Herz proposes four scientific analyses that can be conducted to deduce the provenance of marble which will include the age of the object and the location of the quarry.

The first test is cathodoluminescence which checks the photon emission of white marble against a database of compiled data[26],  however this is dependent on two factors: one, the marble being tested needs to be a white marble; and two, another sample has been tested beforehand so that it matches up on the database. The second test is non-invasive technical imaging, x-ray diffraction and x-ray fluorescence[27], which can narrow down the type of marble without the need for sampling. The third test is a neutron activation analysis which measures the radioactive emanations from the marble object and can determine the age of the object by calculating the radiation decay pattern[28]. The final test is electron-spin resonance spectroscopy, which relies on stable isotopes[29] and can narrow down the marble to a certain area, such as a quarry which is situated at high elevation and may be near to a chalk-bed.

A conservator or technical imaging specialist would need to be called upon to conduct the above material analysis, however. As the object was stored at Gallery X, I was unable to take a look myself. The photographs provided are not of high enough quality to determine a rough estimate of the surface texture to compare with a marble catalogue.

Art Historical Research

Figure 7: Diagram of how a head may slot onto a body in Late Classical sculpture, Higgs, P. 2006, 195.

As mentioned earlier, Gallery X imply that the head may have come from a herm. However, academic reading determined that the heads of Greek and Roman statues in the Late Classical period (1st century AD) were made separately to the base[30]. The way that the base of the Head of Hermes has been shaped with visible tool marks could either support that it was chiselled off a Roman herm, or it is the piece-meal head of a statue and has been removed from its slot in the body. If the latter is true then it is no longer certain that the head is of Hermes but could instead be of another bearded Greek, potentially someone of high-rank considering they would have had a statue made of themselves which a Roman art collector thought having a copy of as worthwhile. Connecting the head to a body is not dissimilar to searching for a needle in a haystack as there are hundreds of thousands of headless Roman and Greek statues.

Figure 8: Head of Aristogeiton, S. Omobono, Rome

However, one theory that can be entertained is that this Head of Hermes could be a copy of the head of Aristogeiton, one of the tyrants in the Tyrannicides bronzes. The bronzes consist of two large statues of two me. Harmodios and Aristogeiton, which were created in the late 6th century BC by a sculptor called Antenor and were revered by Athenians until they were stolen by the Persians in 480BC[31]. A second set was then created in 477/476BC by Kritios and Nesiotes’, but it is unknown how much influence they took from the first set. This second set was widely copied by the Romans in marble which are the only surviving representations of the statues[32]. Aristogeiton has been highlighted as a possible muse for the Gallery X Head of Hermes as Aristogeiton is always depicted as a bearded man, and when compared with a head of Aristogeiton found in excavations near Rome[33]  (fig.8) there are very close similarities, for example, the “small leaf-like locks with an incised line”[34].

Figure 9: Cast of head of Aristogeiton, found at Baiae

Similarly, plaster casts thought to have been used by Kritios and Nesiotes’ in their bronze casting of the Tyrannicide sculptures were found at Baiae in 1954[35] and include a partial cast for the head of Aristogeiton (fig. 9) which hold even stronger similarities to the Head of Hermes. The Tyrannicide sculptures were incredibly significant to Athenians as they represented an end to tyranny and became legend. The tale has been depicted on jugs, plates and other ceramics in differing styles for hundreds of years. The Romans did not view the statues in this same context and saw them as objects of art and decoration. If a connoisseur in the Tyrannicide sculptures were to confirm this theory, not only would the head now have a very interesting history but could also become an item of academic curiosity. Similarly, the value of the head would increase dramatically as it will be an incredibly rare item of great importance.

If this theory is too unfounded then the head could still be a bearded Hermes, especially when compared to images on Artstor and the Arachne databases, for example:

The similarities are very clear with the stylistic features of the face and the wavy/ curly hair. The differences lie in the way that the hair has been styled into a fringe with a headband, which still holds characteristics of copying a bronze. If the head is confirmed as a depiction of Hermes, there will be no change in its monetary value.

Final Recommendation

If the client is worried about the minimal provenance information and the lack of certainty regarding the head’s biography and attribution as a depiction of Hermes, then it would be advisable not to buy the head – unless they trust implicitly the expertise of Gallery X. A due diligence search on previous owners and in verifying the bust’s authenticity should have been undertaken.

On the other hand if the client is nonchalant about these concerns, considers the price is reasonable, and are curious about the bust then it is recommended that they take a marble specialist to Gallery X to confirm the type of marble used. Creating a vague timeline for when the head was manufactured will confirm/disavow any concerns. It is also recommended that the potential buyer contact archaeological or classical Roman and Greek experts to comment on the theories above: is the head a part of a herm and is it/is it not Hermes; could it be the head from a larger statue or a copy of the head of Aristogeiton; was it manufactured in the 5th/6th century BC or is it a Roman copy of a Greek bronze. Although major museums, such as the British Museum, freely offer their services in providing brief historical provenance checks for objects, they have also reserved the right not to undertake this research for those who are planning to buy or sell objects – so that their name is not connected to the sale, wherein it could be used as a justification of attribution or, in case the attribution is incorrect, proof that the object is a good fake/forgery.

If after these enquiries further analysis is sought then it is advisable that the client undertake non-destructive technical imaging to better understand the materiality of the bust. The Head of Hermes appears to be made out of a type of white marble and a neutron activation analysis might determine the age of the marble, therefore a cathodoluminescence test is advised if non-invasive analysis provides little comfort. If these results are unsatisfying, however, electron-spin resonance spectroscopy could take place. Any/all of these tests could assist in dispelling whether or not the head is more modern than thought. Locating where the marble has come from can add to the biography of the object as the type of marble can greatly influence its timeline. Once the quarry has been located, and the popularity of that type of marble has been ascertained, it might be possible to define a possible geographic area from where the head was sourced – and maybe even found, if it wasn’t exported. With a possible area excavation, reports from before the 1960s can be searched through and further academic research can be conducted with visits to, say, the Conway Library in the Courtauld Institute.

[1] The name of the gallery/antiquities dealer has been anonymised

[2] Gallery X 2018a

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bertolami Fine Arts 2017; Auction 36, Lot 87

[5] Gallery X 2018a

[6] Bertolami Fine Arts 2017; Galerie Chenel 2018a

[7] Gallery X 2018b

[8] Bertolami Fine Arts 2017

[9] Gallery X 2018b

[10] Neer 2013, 196

[11] n7

[12] Ibid.

[13] Harvard Art Museums 2018

[14] Richter 1970, 182 cited in Harvard Art Museums 2018

[15] Neer 2013, 156

[16] Muskett G. 2012, 42

[17] Sauer 2003

[18] Rader, C. A. 2010, 3

[19] Boardman, J. 2006, 19; Barletta, B. A. 2006, 101-102

[20] Ibid.

[21] Palagia, O. 2006, 119

[22] Sturgeon, M. C. 2006, 43

[23] Herz, N. 2006, 285

[24] Herz, N. 2006, 285

[25] n27, 286

[26] Ibid., 289

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 290

[29] Ibid., 291

[30] Higgs, P. 2006, 194

[31] Rader, C. A., 2010, 18

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 27

[34] Brunnsaker, S., 1971, 146

[35] Rader, C. A. 2010, 46

About the author: Georgina Tall is a paralegal living and working in London. Georgina is currently completing her solicitor’s exams (LPC LLM, University of Law, UK) after earning a BA in Archaeology and Ancient Civilisations (Durham University, UK) and completing the Graduate Diploma in Law (University of Law, UK). Initially her interest was in the motives of Late Antique iconoclasm but that soon led to an interest in the world of art crime and cultural protection. Recently, Georgina has completed the Sotheby’s Institute of Art summer course in Art Crime (accredited by the University of Manchester) and the Association for Research into Art Crime’s (ARCA) postgraduate course in Art Crime and Cultural Protection. Georgina now hopes to combine her cultural interests with a career in law as an art and cultural solicitor in London.

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.


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Bertolami Fine Arts. 2017. Lot 87. Accessed July 23, 2018. https://www.sixbid.com/browse.html?auction=3971&category=100408&lot=3263489.

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—. 2018b. Parian Marble Portrait Head of Euripides (Rieti Type). Accessed July 23, 2018. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=407165&partId=1&searchText=Herm&images=true&matcult=15943|15623&material=18291|19066&page=1.

—. 2018c. Marble Terminal Bust of the Philosopher Epicurus. Accessed July 23, 2018. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=460090&partId=1&searchText=Herm&images=true&matcult=15943|15623&material=18291|19066&page=1.

—. 2018d. Marble Head from a Statue or Bust. Accessed July 23, 2018. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=460100&partId=1&searchText=Herm&images=true&matcult=15943|15623&material=18291|19066&page=1.

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