One of the very few examples of a Hellenistic animal sculpture copied in the Roman period, this marble figure depicts the Molossian, an ancestor of the modern mastiff. The dog was native to Epirus in northwestern Greece, which was sacked by Rome in 168 BC. The original second-century BC bronze likely was associated with a civic monument there.
The statue, which had lost its tail, was acquired by Henry Constantine Jennings during his stay in Rome, sometime between 1753-1756. He called it the “Dog of Alcibiades” after the fourth-century Athenian who, relates Plutarch (Life, IX), was said to have purchased a large and handsome dog with a particularly attractive tail, only to have it docked. Better, Alcibiades laughed, to give the Athenians something to talk about other than himself.
Gambling debts forced the sale of the sculpture in 1778, when it was purchased by Charles Duncombe. Edmund Burke was said to have remarked at the time, “A thousand guineas! The representation of no animal whatever is worth so much,” to which Dr. Johnson replied, “Sir, it is not the worth of the thing, but the skill in forming it, which is so highly estimated. Every thing that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that shews man he can do what he thought he could not do, is valuable” (Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, April 3, 1778).
Sold by the Duncombe estate in 2001, the figure now is in the British Museum, after an appeal raised the $950,000 asking price.