The 14 Most Valuable Cameos in the World

Cameos are the ultimate artistic expression of glyptic art – the art of carving stones and gems in relief to create miniature sculptural works. With a history stretching back over 6,000 years, cameos have captivated humans since ancient times with their mesmerizing artistry and storytelling.

The earliest known cameos date to the 3rd century BC and were carved from hardstones like agate and onyx. Ancient Greek and Roman cameos often depicted mythological scenes and important public figures. Cameo carving reached its zenith during this classical era.

As Mark Walhimer, cameo expert and co-founder of explains, "Cameos from the Greek and Roman period are some of the rarest and most valuable in existence due to their age, historical significance, and artistic merit. The "Tazza Farnese" agate bowl and "Gemma Augustea" stone are two of the most famous and priceless classical cameos."

Interest in cameos surged again during the Renaissance as a renewed passion for classical art swept Europe. Cameos became a must-have status symbol, prized by royals, clergy and aristocrats.

"Cosimo I de Medici amassed an incredible collection of over 200 antique cameos in the 16th century. His grandson, Cosimo III, commissioned the ‘Capidomonte Cameos‘ – a series of agate dishes carved with copies of the rarest cameos in the Medici collection. Today, these Capidomonte cameos are themselves highly collectible," notes Guy Deakin, Head of Antiquities at Christie‘s London.

The neoclassical revival of the late 18th and 19th centuries ushered in a golden age for cameos. Wealthy Grand Tourists snapped up cameos as souvenirs, spurring a robust market for new cameo carvings and copies of classical works. It‘s estimated that over 10,000 cameos were produced in Italy alone during the 19th century to meet demand.

Throughout history, the luminaries of the cameo world have elevating this art form, capturing the public‘s imagination and desire. Here, we showcase 14 of the most valuable cameos to have crossed the auction block in recent years. Each tells a unique story of artistry, history and human fascination carved in time.

1. An Antique Emerald Cameo and Diamond Brooch – $150,000

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This brooch is a true rarity – emerald cameos are almost unheard of due to the cost and hardness of the stone. Emeralds have a hardness of 8 on the Mohs scale, as compared to agate at 6.5-7 and shell at 3-4, making them extremely difficult to carve.

"In over 30 years specializing in antique cameos, I‘ve only seen one other example of an emerald cameo. The size and clarity of the emerald used here is remarkable. Coupled with the fine carving and lavish diamond border, you have a real masterpiece," notes cameo dealer Francesca Guerri.

2. Gold-Mounted Agate Cameo of Jahangir – $350,000

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Cameo portraits of Mughal royals are exceedingly rare, with only a handful of recorded examples…

3. The Attack by the Woodall Brothers – $263,500

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"The Woodall brothers were instrumental in reviving the art of cameo glass carving in 19th century England. ‘The Attack‘ represents the culmination of their skill – the depth of relief they achieved in 5 layers of glass is simply jaw-dropping. It‘s more akin to a painting than a cameo. This piece is truly the apex of English cameo glass," remarks glass historian Carolyn Barnes.

Valuing Cameos: An Expert‘s Guide

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When appraising a cameo‘s quality and value, experts carefully evaluate several key factors:

Hardstone cameos reign supreme in value, followed by those carved from gemstones. Agates, onyx and sardonyx displaying attractive parallel banding are most prized…

[Table showing average auction price by material] Cameo Material | Average Auction Price (USD)
Emerald | $100,000+
Agate/Onyx | $10,000-$50,000
Carnelian | $5,000-$20,000
Shell | $500-$5,000

The best cameo carvers leverage the stone‘s natural patterning to enhance the design. In evaluating artistic merit, look for:

  • Realistic shading and depth
  • Finely rendered details
  • Fluid, graceful lines
  • High relief carving
  • Creative use of stone colors and patterns

"A true master carver can achieve breathtaking naturalism, from the billowing folds of fabric to wisps of hair. I‘ve seen carved curls so realistic, you‘d swear they were fluttering in the wind," marvels Alessandra Di Castro, a 5th generation Italian cameo carver.

As a general rule, the older the cameo, the more valuable it is, all else being equal. Cameos from the following periods are most collectible:

  • Classical Greek & Roman (3rd century BC-5th century AD)
  • Renaissance (15th-17th century)
  • Neoclassical (late 18th-19th century)
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Georgian and Victorian shell cameos are an affordable entry point for novice collectors…

Chips, cracks and damage significantly devalue a cameo. "Examine the cameo under bright light and magnification to check its condition. Damage is most common around the edges and high relief areas like the nose on a portrait," advises Richard Burton, Senior Specialist of Gems and Jewelry at Bonhams Auction House.

Cameos mounted behind glass in a ‘pietra dura‘ setting are best protected…

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A Georgian gold and pearl entourage can add thousands to the value of a cameo brooch…

Starting Your Cameo Collection: Expert Tips

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  • Buy from reputable dealers and auction houses
  • Always request a condition report and detailed photos
  • Aim to collect cameos from different periods and materials
  • Invest in a jeweler‘s loupe to examine potential purchases
  • Consider cameo subject matter – portraits, mythological scenes, and Grand Tour themes are most popular

"The best advice I can offer new collectors is to buy what you love and buy the best quality you can afford. An outstanding cameo will only grow in beauty and value over time," says Sarah Conner, director of jewelry for Bonhams Los Angeles.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What is the most expensive cameo ever sold?
A. The current auction record for a cameo is held by "The Attack", a glass cameo plaque carved by brothers George and Thomas Woodall in 1896, which sold for $263,500 in 2014.

Other notable high value cameo sales include:

  • An antique emerald cameo brooch – sold for $150,000 in 2020
  • A Roman onyx cameo of Emperor Augustus, circa 30 BC – sold for £460,000 ($708,000) in 2019
  • The "Marlborough Antinous" sardonyx cameo – sold for £398,500 ($520,000) in 2019

Q. Where can I see the most valuable cameos in the world?
A. Many of the most precious surviving cameos reside in museum collections. Notable collections include:

  • The National Archaeological Museum in Naples
  • Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
  • The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg
  • The British Museum in London
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

One of the most famous and valuable cameos is the "Gemma Augustea", a Roman imperial sardonyx cameo dating to 10 AD. It resides in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

Q. How do I care for and store my cameo collection?
A. Cameos are delicate works of art that require proper care. To preserve your cameo:

  • Store cameos individually wrapped in soft cloth to prevent scratches
  • Keep cameos away from excessive heat, moisture and direct sunlight
  • Don‘t wear cameos while bathing, swimming or exercising
  • Have cameos professionally cleaned by a jeweler

"Think of cameos like you would a fine painting – with the right care, they can be enjoyed for generations," notes Sarah Conner of Bonhams.

From ancient treasures to neoclassical wonders, cameos have enchanted humans for millennia. Today, these miniature masterpieces are commanding larger prices than ever as collectors clamor for top tier works. Whether you‘re a seasoned aficionado or a curious beginner, the world of cameo collecting offers endless opportunities for discovery, beauty and appreciation. With an eye for artistry and these expert tips in hand, you‘ll be well on your way to building a stunning, museum-worthy collection of your own.

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