Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Zahi Hawass Strikes Again

Ever the media savvy publicity machine, if you have not yet come across Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Antiquities, you are in for a treat.

Regardless of the results shown by careful excavation you will note from his TV appearances and publications Dr Hawass only ever discoveers lost queens, pyramids, and the most beautiful etc, etc, etc,.

Two recent news reports on the BBC therefore should come as no surprise and live up to media expectations of archaeology, rather than importance to scientific progress.

These latest finds are 'the most beautiful mummy ever' (boy does she have some ugly competition to beat)

and the most amazing collection of over fifty mummies in one tomb (or a mass grave as it would be known anywhere else in the world)

You have to hand it to Dr Hawass, he certainly knows how to grease the wheels of publicity for Egypt, even if his finds lack a certain factual truth in their initial analysis.

It's just a shame these mummies won't be available on the market any time soon.

If you do want a genuine mummy (case at least) then you can do worse than bid for Yves St Laurent's mummy case, not to forget a bronze of the Egyptian lion god Mahes, being sold by Christie's in Paris at the end of February.


Monday, 2 February 2009

The future awaits ....

I have been fairly quiet lately as things have been rahter hecticand there has not been much happening in the legitimate antiquities market of note.

Unless of course you want to own Yves Saint Laurent's mummy case (owned by YSL, not his intended burial casket that is) or statue of the lion headed Egyptian god Mahes. If you do, then get over to Paris for Christie's two day sale of the YSL collections this February.

While I have not been writing the blog, I have been working on my PhD proposal for the submission deadline at the beginning of March. When it has been accepted, I will post it here as a PDF for free download. I hope to start at City University' s (London) Department of Cultural Policy and Management in September 2009.

If I can't dominate the market as a collector, hopefully I will make a better academic and for once the trade will have an ally in the field of professional archaeology/policy management.

My intended research will look at the question of self-regulation in the UK ancient art trade, so that should set the cat among the pigeons.

At present I continue to write for the RICS Arts Surveyor magazine and the next (February 09) issue will be dedicated to antiquities. Again, once published I will hopefully be able to publish my article on 'Amarna Talatat' here as a pdf for free download

I have just recieved Rupert Wace's 2009 catalogue and needless to say it is another fantastic selection. I recommend you download the pdf version here

All the best

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Don't Judge a Book.... (or an exhibition)

Please excuse the delay in updating the blog, but I have been spending Christmas at my other home in Lisbon and showing my parents the sights for the first time, so have not had the chance to write anything.

Before we went away a friend told me about an exhibition on the 'Submerged Treasures of Alexandria' and I was surprised I had not seen anything advertised about such a significant subject.

Previously we had discovered an small exhibition on the obelisks of Rome that had equally suffered from a lack of pre-publicity, so had every expectation of seeing exactly what was promised by the large banner covering most of the front of the headquarters of the insurance company who were the exhibition host and sponsors.

Given the prominent location of the exhibition in the square immediately in front of the tube station and the statue of Fernando Pessoa, outside the cafe where the author sojourned, also got our hopes up. However, my suspicions were raised when the security guards were less than enthusiastic regarding my enquiries as to the opening hours of the exhibition and if there was an entry fee.

In its defence, I can say, having finally found the time to see the exhibition, it was free - and this was the best thing about it!

Rather than the sunken treasures promised, at best I expected the photographs of a Portuguese visitor to Alexandria or one of the blockbuster exhibitions of the treasures put on by an American museum. Instead we were greeted by the hackneyed and derivative contemporary art installations of a group of Portuguese artists who may or may not be famous (they could be graduate students for all I know).

Sand trays on black paper looking like a primary school art class and strips of driftwood painted gold do not constitute art. Small, derivative and entirely uninspiring, it is no wonder the visitors we met coming out were engaged in the universal language of shaking their heads and looking thoroughly confused.

Next time I travel I will take my own advice and check out the exhibitions beforehand or stick to using Minerva's guide to current exhibitions. I suggest you do the same.

On the plus side, having gained a distinction in my Masters dissertation I have decided to press on with my application for PhD research in Cultural Policy and Management at City University.

One of my first priorities on my return was a meeting with the senior research supervisors of the department, Dr's Juliet Steyn and Jenny Kidd. Fortunately they were enthusiastic about my proposal to research UK and international laws and regulations governing the trade in antiquities.

I hope to publish both my MA dissertation (once I have corrected my own glaring errors only noticed when I collected it from the School of Surveying at Kingston University in the new year)
and my PhD proposal if accepted to City U.


Thursday, 11 December 2008

You've bought your antiquity - now what?

Once you have decided to buy an antiquity at auction or from a dealer you may think you can sit back and relax - but consider the implications.

You are now the proud custodian of (like Rolls Royce you never truly "own") an ancient artwork.
So how do you get it home or to your office?

An anecdotal tale which should serve as a warning - on UK television awhile back ( I don't remember the exact details) an English couple were moving to Spain to open an art gallery. Having spent c£50,000 on glass sculptures they then relied on a regular household removal firm to deliver their stock for the opening of the gallery. Not surprisingly the works were a) delayed and b) broken.

Art handling is a specialist skill and there are plnety of expert companies around to assist you, so shop around and get the best quote. Of course, if buying small artworks you may be able to carry thom home yourself on the plane, by car or even the train. However, if you want a sculpture professionally installed in your home and don't know whether or not you require an export licence, let the experts worry for you. All good commercial galleries and public museums trust them, so why shouldn't you? They even have bonded warehouses to please the customs.

Export licences for antiquities are tricky things in the UK at present becuase of the 'Waverley Criteria' and zero-rating, which I will explain soon.

For now we recommend the following for UK clients:

Gander and White
Constantine Ltd
Martinspeed Ltd
Ward Thomas

Good Luck

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

DeMystifying the Auction Process 2: Buying

Yesterday Christie's New York held its bi-annual Antiquities and Ancient Jewelry sales and today was the turn of Sotheby's NY for their bi-annual specialist auction. AS record prices continue to be achieved for exceptional antiquities perhaps it is time to get down to the practicalities of buying at auction.

The process of buying works like this. You register your personal details and interests with the auction house prior to the sale in which you are interested. The auction house runs a credit check to make sure you can pay for your purchases then activates an account for you.

Viewings are held the week before an auction where you may inspect the lots to be sold in person. Catalogues arepublished in printed form and on-line up to a month before the sale where you may begin to assess pieces which may be of potential interest.

Auction lots are sold to the highest bidder and this may be done in several ways, You may attend the auction in person where you will be given a paddle with your bidder number which you show clearly to the auctioneer when you are bidding. It is a myth that if you scratch your nose during an auction you will be committed to buying a $50,000,000 Picasso - Auctioners are not stupid!

Each auction catalogue also has an absentee bid form in the back. You may leave a written bid with the auctioneer prior to the sale if you cannot attend in person or send an agent such as myself to act on your behalf. Remember however, you are more likely to lose out to a bidder who can attend in person.

You may also register for a telephone bid which must be booked in advance of the sale. The auction house will call you two or three lots before the item/s in which you are interested and you can confirm your highest bid in person.

Remember, staff are very helpful and there to answer your questions within reason. Particulalry important when dealing with antiquities, you may ask for photographs and crucially, condition reports on any item before deciding to purchase.

Remember not to get carried away and bid more than is reasonable (the printed estimates in the catalogue are a useful guide to the value of an artwork), or more than you can afford.

This is the crucial trade secret- remember DEALERS BUY STOCK AT AUCTION! If you are a novice collector, this is no bad thing as it is an extra guarantee of authenticity and quality as the pieces you buy will have been assessed by auction house staff and the dealer. The downside is you would have got the item cheaper at auction than paying the dealers mark-up.

Remember, auctions are public sales - do not be put off by posh salerooms or intimidated by front of house staff or experts, they are there to help you.

A final crucial point regarding the auction process - whether buying or selling you will pay a commision to the auction house (currently 20-25% of the hammer price) plus VAT, storage and delivery charges so remember your budget must take account of these extra charges.

Happy hunting, but be warned - the auction houses cannot always be releid upon to spot the forgeries and the dud's. Think very carefully before investing your hard earned cash!


Sunday, 7 December 2008

De-Mystifying the Auction Process 1. The Catalogue

So far we have delved into some pretty heavy topics. We don't want the reader to feel overwhelmed so lets get back to the practical advice for a moment.

Again, I hope not to alienate the reader, but sometimes it is helpful to approach topics that may be considered as a given with fresh eyes.

What is an auction? An auction is a publicly advertised sale whereby single items or groups of associated artefacts are organised into 'Lots' to be sold. The price of each 'Lot' is not fixed but estimates are given by the auction house to guide the purchaser in deciding what an item may be worth. The guide price is usually given within a specified range in the Local currency of the saleroom (e.g. £150-200) and may also be given in other currencies if the sale is marketed internationally.

It may seem blindingly obvious, but a sale catalogue is a means of advertising. It is produced with the specific intention of marketing the lots in a given auction before the sale. The star item (usually the most valuable economically) is prominently advertised on the cover (Don't even think about bidding unless your name is George Ortiz or Sheikh Al-Thani).

The prime aim of the auction house is to sell the star item. Everything else is to a greater or lesser degree, secondary.

The more important items will be towards the front of the catalogue (i.e. single item lots) and lesser lots (i.e. low value multiples) wilbe pushed to the back, depending on sub-categories.

Auction catalogues may be specialist (i.e. dedicated to a single collection or type of object such as antiquities) or general. Usually specialist sales are held by major auction houses and general sales by provincial auctioneers.

After the sale, prices realised are published in a list of 'auction results'.

The auction house' conditions of sales are also provided in the sale catalogue and you will need to understand how the auction itself functions before bidding.


Friday, 5 December 2008

Museums and the "Velvet Rope"

Having made Lisa miss the "Treasures of Isis" exhibition at the 'Springsonian' Museum, Homer breaks into the museum to prove to his little girl that reckless acts can be rewarding. Having broken in Homer goes to step over a museum barrier when Lisa stops him with an anguished cry, "We cant' touch it's behind a velvet rope", with eyes glazed and a sense of awe in her voice she caresses the barrier and repeats, "a velvet rope".

Now the Simpsons may seem an unlikely source for discussing the role of museums as the guardians of word heritage - but the writers of 'The Simpsons' have hit the nail on the head when it comes to our attitude to the barriers, both physical and metaphorical which seperate those supposed to be encouraged to engage with history and share in the collective responsiblity for its preservation (i.e. the public) and those that actually act as the guardians of the past, whether they are museum curators, government appointed officials or private collectors.

There is a common expression in English that "a museum is a dangerous place" and unfortunately there are countless examples to back up this assumption.

We trust museums to act as guardians of heritage goods, not to allow visitors to pour a can of Coke over an Egyptian statue to see if the acid really will destroy the stone (it did) or allow visitors to trip over their shoelaces and smash priceless Chinese vases 'by accident'. Unfortunately these incidents are actual cases, not metaphorical.

Perhaps worse than both these cases is the apparent deliberate act of vandalism carried out on the Koptos Lions by the British Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie. It would appear that unable to export these unique examples of monumental predynastic sculpture he took a hammer and chisel to them and exported them as an assortment of unimportant stone fragments (see Barbara Adams book 'The Koptos Lions').

Museums all too readily excuse the behaviours of early collectors as past and yet tar collectors with the same brush.

Museums are founded on the good will of private donors. The British Museum has the Hamilton Vase collection, the Salt Collection, etc, the Fitzwilliam Museum has the Gayer-Anderson Collection, the list is endless.

Private collectors can take an ethical approach to collecting without being held accountable for current looting crises by the professional museum community.
In a worrying development of public censorship the latest issue of Minerva (Vol 19 No 6, Nov/Dec 2008, p.63) reports that despite James Cuno being hotly tipped as the favourite to replace Phillip de Montebello as Director of the Met Museum, NY, the position has gone to Thomas P. Campbell, Curator of Textiles, in case you were wondering.
It's not like the Met to bo concerned with ethics and antiquities (read Thomas Hoving's autobiography, 'Making the Mummies Dance'). Look at the saga of the Euphronius Krater to name but one. After all, they are happy to display The Levy-White Collection which still has the 'Icklingham Bronzes', known to be looted from a farmer's field in Suffolk, England.
In the same issue, Minerva also reports that "American Association of Museums Sets Stricter Guidelines for the Acquisition of Antiquities" (p. 7). Coincidence - I think not!