Sunday, 30 November 2008

Why not Contemporary Art?

This might seem a bit of a sideline off the main topic, but in persuading you that ancient art is the best investment, you may be asking yourself why everyone is caught up with contemporary art at present?

According to Forbes Magazine, Legendary Hedge Fund Manager Michael Steinhardt 'recognised the value' of antiquities and assembled one of the world's biggest collections. Now the biggest is not necessarily the best and I hope he took sensible advice on which antiquities to buy.

Similarly, when the British Rail Pension Fund decided to nivest part of their portfolio in the Art Market, they stuck with tried and tested markets, namely Old Master Paintings and Antiquities. They did not rush into the purchase of contemporary art.

Charles Saatchi has been instrumental in persuading the UK art market that contemporary is not just fashionalbe, but also a good investment. However, unless you have the influence to buy up entire degree shows and manufacture the next Banksy, it will always remain a risk.

In a recent discussion with a member of Tate's board who decide on purchases I learn't that even museums are trying to second guess who the next big artist will be. Unfortunately they are spending their collections budgets on unknown artists, then getting lumbered with worthless artworks as the artists career nosedives and they dont have a disposal policy that allows them to get shot of the works.

This is not a diatribe against the Tate however, but a warning that even arts professionals cannot reliably control such an amorphous beast as the art market. In 2004, the Arts Council commissioned a report to find out why more people do not invest in contemporary art. The report, 'Taste Buds' by Morris Hargreaves Mcintyre found that even high net worth individuals are intimidated by the dealer system and confused by the scale of the contemporary market.

If you are a novice and wnat to know what makes a good investment I would say this. Contemporary art does exactly what it says on the tin. A Banksy may cost you £20,000 at auction today but when he's no longer fashionable he may be worth £20.00. That's not to say it will definitely happen, but its a frightening possibility.

Of course If you are a museum curator playing with tax payers money or donations from wealthy patrons, you can afford to take the risk. After all you won't go to prison for a bad investment. Smuggle antiquities out of a source country and you can at least expected to be arrested at gunpoint when reentering the country

I will get to the ethical and legal considerations shortly, but first let me just say there is something magical about holding a complete predynastic pottery vessel that still shows the fingerprints from when the clay was wet during the manufacture that has survived for five thousand years or more.

If Egyptian antiquities were collected by Roman emperors and we have based our civilization, not to mention our art on Classical traditions, I think it is fair to say this is at least a tried and tested accepted standard of aesthetic beauty that is unlikely to become unfashionable any time soon.

As a rule of thumb, on average antiquities rise 10% in value every year and double in value every ten years. This is of course for significant artworks. Buy a scarab from a dealer and you are paying retail price against wholesale auction price so it is unlikely to ever be worth what you paid for it.

I like and admire Banksy's work (the streat cleaner steaming the cave paintings off the walls is my favourite) and even some of Damien Hirst's art I find quite interesting but if I have to put my money where my mouth is I will still choose a classical statue or Egyptian relief any day of the week.

Friday, 28 November 2008

What defines 'Ancient Art'?

In my last entry I described in detail my interpretation of what is meant by an antiquity. This was based on academic and professional understanding of both archaeology and the ancient art market.

This may have got somewhat confusing, so in comparison I will try and keep this entry succinct and to the point. You may notice some dealers describe their stock as 'antiquities' and other describe themselves as sellers of 'ancient art'. There is no great myster about the difference. It is primarliy an aesthetic judgement, although money also has a lot to do with the definitions.

An antiquity may be an example of 'ancient art' if it is aesthetically pleasing and/or historically important. All works of 'ancient art' are by definition antiquities, but not all 'antiquities' are of an aesthetic quality to be considered 'ancient art'.

Perhaps the most important point to remember is these definitions are modern, and made by a trade dependent on selling to a relatively small market. The ancient civilizations from which 'ancient art' and 'antiquities' originate, on the whole do not even have the concept of an artist.

The artist as a nmaed individual first appears on Greek vases. Even if a name is not known such as the Euphronius Krater, vases may still be identified as 'art' becuase the style can be attributed to a school or painter, e.g the Micali Painter.

Egyptian and Near Eastern art may be considered aesthetically pleasing by current collectors and museums, but the 'artists' were in fact craftsmen, working to standard canons of representation for specific buiding projects e.g. the decoration of a temple or tomb.

It is certainly true that all antiquities range in quality and importance, but this you will only be able to work out for yourself with detailed knowledge and experience of museum collections, private collections and the ancient art market. I suggest you look at published catalogues of dealers such as 'Art of the Ancient World', published by Royal Athena Galleries and the various catalogues of Rupert Wace Ltd of London, amongst others. These will give you fine examples of 'ancient art'. Compare to museum and exhibition catalogues such as 'Pharaoh's of the Sun' and 'In Pursuit of the Absolute - Masterpieces of Ancient Art from the George Ortiz Collection'.

Above all remember, you wil be unlikely to be in a position to form a collection of ancient art to equal George Ortiz, or the hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, but that does not mean you have to settle for poor quality antiquities which are more common than dealers would have you believe.

Our mantra will remain the same throughout this Blog, buy the best you can afford and trade up whenever possible. A reputable dealer will give you the same advice.

Above all, dont be intimidated by the Bond Street image of the market.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Back to Basics

I would not be so presumptious as to assume I have a readership yet, but one can remain ever hopeful. I hope readers who are attracted to the subject will have some knowledge of the current ancient art market an the issues surrounding it, but I will not presume this from the outset.

Even if you are familiar with the current debate, whether from an academic or archaeological perspective, as a dealer or collector immersed in the trade, it does no harm to go back occasionally and remind ourselves of a few simple facts.

I hope to introduce more complex issues such as export controls and legal instruments affecting cultural property, the history of the market and advice on the various ways into the market, but for now I think it best to begin by reminding ourselves of a few basic facts. If you are new to the subject of antiquities I hope this is helpful and less overwhelming than beginning with an analysis of government legislation.

So the first question I want to address is simply what is an antiquity?

Antiquity is a term that is applied to the physical culture of ancient history, Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Near East are all civlizations we associate with 'antiquity'. Consequently the market in antiquities is the trade in the phyiscal remains from the civlizations of antiquity, the dim and distant past way beyond living memory and in some cases beyond recorded history.

If you are a fan of The Antiques Roadshow, Flog It or some such television guide to antiques, you may understand the term 'antique' to be anything over one hundred years old. Whatever the dealers tell you, anything else is a 'collectible'. Just as an antique must by definition be over a hundred years old, so an 'antiquity' must be over a thousand years old, and most are considerably older.

An antiquity is not just a question of age, and this is where the art market and professional archaeology differ in their approach to remains of past civilizations. By definition an archaeologist must consider anything found within an arhcaeological context as potentially significant for understanding human behaviour of the past. This includes what a Roman soldier ate for lunch while patrolling Hadrian's Wall or even the plants and animals that made up the physical environment during early settlement and migration patterns.

An antiquity is more specific. It is the phyiscal remains certainly, but importantly includes only the artefacts which show the signs of use and manufacture, that is human intervention. Conversely - and confusinlgy for the beginner, ancient coinage forms a different area of research in both the market and academia so 'antiquities' are further limited to objects and artefacts made by humankind, other than coins.

Some examples, a Roman or Anglo Saxn brooch such as the important collection amassed by Reverend Richard Hattat, weapons and armour as represented by the highly significant Axel Guttman collection, parts of buidings such as carved timbers or stone releifs, but not buidings themselves, and any object from Roman pottery bowls to flint had axes.

Generally speaking the time frame for antiquities differs from civilization to civilization but will include the stone tools and implements, not to mention the clothing of early human hunter-gatherer societies up until the brooches and clothes pins of Medieval Europe, although most cultures will consider antiquity to be older than the Medieval Period. Egyptian antiquities for example include Coptic manuscripts and decorative woolen fragments of ceremonial clothes from the early church, but as Islam is alive and well in Egypt (as is the Coptic church incidentally), Medieval Islamic art will not be considered antiquities (although confusingly the Supreme Council for Antiquities, Egypt's government body responsible for ancient monuments, does now have responsibility for preserving Medieval buildings as well).

Now that's as clear as mud I hope. Of course this is a simplification, but I hope it will get you thinking about what we mean when academics or antiquities dealers talk about something as 'an antiquity'. If you have ideas of your own, please share them.

Next I hope to differentiate between 'antiquities' and 'ancient art' before moving on to a short history of the market. I must stress I am endeavouring to prevent a balanced overview of the current antiquities trade and have no political agenda to promote or refute. I hope you wil find my Blog insightful and useful.


Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Introduction to the ancient art market

It constantly amazes me that high net worth individuals will pick over contracts with a fine tooth comb when it comes to buying a house, car or anything else the general public has an awareness of. Yet when it comes to investing in the art market, particularly the ancient art market, known to be plagued with forgeries and low grade tat, they trust their 'instincts'.

You want proof - I recently met an American collector and casually asked him who he took advice from when buying antiquities. His answer - "I've been collecting for thirty years - I don't need advice from anybody"!

Now, you have to be supicious of anyone who doesn't take advice right! Bearing in mind that Bolton City Council and the Art Fund funded the purchase of the Greenhalgh 'Nefertiti' (a poor copy of the Louvre sandstone Nefertiti with way too big hips, even for the Amarna period) and the British Museum were prepared to take on face value that the same family, living on a council estate in the north of England had also 'inherited' Assyrian reliefs from the palaces of Nineveh, we all need to consult other authorities occasionally.

An honest appraisal of the pitfalls of the antiquities market is provided by Helios Gallery, a respectabl member of the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) in their e-Bay guide to collecting antiquities. "We all get caught out sometimes" - its the nature of the beast.

If you are new to the market in antiquities, I will be happy to share what I know about UK and international laws and the ethics of collecting Cultural Goods. I will happily point out the controversial nature of the trade and not hide the vocal opposition amongst the academic archaeological community. Collectors and investors should, after all be fully aware of the issues surrounding the market before getting involved.

To conclude - The place to start in order to get an overview of the current market is Minerva Magazine: The International Review of Ancient Art and Archaeology, but be aware it is owned and run by the owner's of Royal Athena Galleries/Seaby, major players in the ancient art trade. This is no bad thing, but you should be aware of this interest. The standard book on the subject is Collecting Antiquities: "An Introductory Guide" by Charles Ede, one of the leading London dealers. Now rather outdated it is still a good all round introduction and there has been nothing to replace it yet.

Also, and this may not be immediately obvious, but visit as many museums and exhibitions and read as widely as possible in order to familairise yourself not just with the market, but with antiquity in general. Unlike our American cousin, the more you know, the better you will be able to evaluate the potential of an antiquity for purchase/investment.

There are a lot of fakes out there and we will conclude by suggesting you stay well clear of e-Bay until you know your market, although it is a useful resource for cheap reference books to help you develop your knowledge. A trade secret - Invaluable is just what it says. Current and archived auction lots are available for research at but you must be serious enough to subscribe to make full use of this invaluable research tool no matter what your area of interest.

If you must venture into e-Bay territory, the only advice I can give at this stage is initially look to dealers who are independently established and recognised by the trade through membership of a regulatory body. I do not wan't to give the impression I am somehow promoting one dealer, but Helios Gallery comes to mind as they have been around a fair while, provide antiquities of interest to the lower end of the market and first time collectors, are members of the ADA and sell on e-Bay.

I will begin to reccomend other markets and galleries in my next blog.


Monday, 24 November 2008

About Me

To start at the beginning, following an early interest in archaeology I began collecting antiquities as a teenager having found a dealer listed in Exchange and Mart of all places. My professional interest in the market began at University College London where I gained a BA in Ancient History and an MA in Egyptian Archaeology before deciding my interests lay in the ancient art market rather than academic archaeology. I spent three years working for a provincial museum on the cataloguing and exhibiton of their archaeological and ethnographic collections. However, I do not think hordes of schoolchildren gawping at mummies is a respectful use of the past. Following the MA at UCL I worked in the art trade for a few years before undertaking a professional MA in Arts Market Appraisal at Kingston University which I have just completed. This course is accredited by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). I am now considering the possiblity of a PhD in the ancient art market. Having realised small antiquities are not a good investment, I reinvested my collections through a well known London auction house and am now on the look out for that one special ancient art treasure. having spent the last two years watching the antiquities market and studying the legal and ethical background and controversies, I hope to be able to offer practical advice to the novice collector and investor.