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!


Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Sources: Get Informed 2 (web resources)

The World Wide Web is awash with information of varying quality and the ancient art market is not alone. Like any academic area of research, test the quality of your sources and favour those prepared by known professionals.

Naturally it is common practice these days for individual dealers to have their own websites, but how do you find them and evaluate their credentials?

The main trade organisations have their own websites and we recommend you identify potential suppliers through these memberships. In the UK many dealers, including auction houses are members of the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) and a list of members is available at

Obviously my comments are aimed at the UK market, but the majority of significant dealers and galleries are located in the USA and Europe. Do not let this put you off - great art is worth travelling for as long as the exchange rate holds up. The main dealers, including some UK dealers are represented by the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA).

Royal Athena Galleries are members of both organisations and a major supplier of ancient art to suit all pockets, catering to both the London and New York markets. Their current 'Art of the Ancient World catalogue 2009' is available to download as a pdf at

It is important to remember however, codes of conduct and membership are voluntary regulations, not legal requirements. Not all dealers who are not members should therefore be considered supect, in fact some of the best galleries are harder to identify because they are not affiliated with either organisation.

Dealers who sell exceptional works of ancient art legitimately but are not members of trade associations (as far as we can confirm) are The Merrin Gallery, USA, The Safani Gallery, USA and Barakat Galleries, London, Beverley Hills and Abu Dhabi.

In the last ten years the IADAA members have developed two significant ancient art fairs in Europe. The Basel Ancient Art Fair is held in November and the Brussels Ancient Art Fair held in June For the novice collector this is the ideal opportunity to compare dealers stock in one place and make informed decisions on investment.

Auctions are the other main market for antiquities and details of specialist auctions can be found at, and Other antiquities sales are held by Jean David Cahn of Switzerland

Christie's and Sotheby's both have specialist auctions imminent for New York based collectors. Christie's sales of ancient art and ancient Jewellery are on December 9th and Sotheby's antiquities sales is on December 10th.

Remember, auctions are highly publicised and competetive markets.

We have already mentioned the website for a community of dealers to advertise their stock but be warned this needs experience and knowledge to negotiate.

Antiquities auction results are provided by Carter Horsley at

Having promoted the market, information on the illict trade can be found at the following websites:

The Illicit Antiquities Research Centre (IARC) was a ten year investigative project by the McDonald Institute of the University of Cambridge from 1987-1997. Their website still contains downloadable copies of the journal "Culture Without Context".

Saving Antiquities For Everyone (SAFE) An American organisation founded by the Lawyer Rick St Hilaire, also has up to date news stories and publications.

In England, the Institute of Art and Law (IAL) provides relevant publications and conferences.

Finally, try not to rely on Wikipedia, it's not worth it!


Monday, 1 December 2008

Sources: Get Informed 1 (print publications)

While there are countless publications on both popular and academic archaeology, aside from dealer and auction catalogues, informed publications on the antiquities trade are rather rare.

I hope this introduction to sources will allow the reader to develop their knowledge at their own pace without losing sight of what is currently important.

We have already mentioned Charles Ede: Guide to Collecting Antiquities published by Hollington Books of London is the only general guide to antiquities so far produced.

Dr Jerome Eisenberg of Royal Athena planned an Encyclopedia of Egyptian Antiquities but so far I have not been able to ascertain whether it was ever produced or not.

We have also mentioned MINERVA magazine as the main trade publication, details available at

Auction and dealer catalogues are the best sources for information on the current market and I will come on to these when recommending Web sources.

The current situation in Iraq has led to a heightened awareness of looting and the best book at the moment is "Who Owns Antiquity?" by James Cuno, published by Princeton University Press.

Lord Renfrew is the leading academic opponent of the ancient art trade and Duckworth published the script of an influential lecture he gave on the subject as "Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership". (Irony is, if you want to be taken sserously as an academic it more difficult when your title is "Disney Professor" at the "Mcdonald Institute"!) Trust me he si very passionate about his belief in the harm the antiquities trade causes to archaeology.

What no one has questioned so far is the right of archaeologists to determine the fate of our shared cultural heritage. After all, arhcaeology is by nature a destructive process and the value of academic publication is highly subjective.

The dark underbelly of the trade is exposed in the works of Peter Watson and others. The main books to read (in order, to follow the thread) are "Sotheby's Inside Story" (Bloomsbury), "Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material" (With Doole and Brodie - available as free download at IARC website

and "The Medici Conspiracy" (with Cecilia Todischini).

To date, Jonathan Tokeley's "Rescuing the Past: the Cultural Heritage Crusade" (Imprint Academic) is the only book written by an individual involved in the illicit trade and is a fantastic, insightful and thought provoking read.

We would also recommend you read S.R.M. McKenzie's "Going Going Gone, Regulating the Market in Illcit Antiquities" (Leicester: IAL), Patrick O'Keefe's "Trade in Antiquities: Reducing Destruction and Theft" (Archetype) and Kathryn Walker Tubb (ed.) "Antiquities: Trade or Betrayed?" (Archetype). Tubb also has an up to date article in Vol 18 of the Proceedings of the Institute of Archaeology (2007), available direct from the institute

There are several other publications and fuller lists are available at the IARC and SAFE websites.

To finish, if you want a taster of the current debate before delving into these texts I found this link to a radio interview on the Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) website.