The Timeless Lure of Antiquities ; Stellar Objects Attract Big Buyers, but Tracing Provenance Can Be Tricky

By Reyburn, Scott | International New York Times, August 18, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Timeless Lure of Antiquities ; Stellar Objects Attract Big Buyers, but Tracing Provenance Can Be Tricky


Reyburn, Scott, International New York Times


Stellar objects from ancient civilizations are attracting big buyers, but the elephant-in-the-room problem is the need to provide proof of provenance.

Antiquities are the art world's niche market of the moment. Last month in London, sculptures from ancient Egypt and ancient Rome sold for 15.8 million pounds and Pounds 9.4 million respectively, setting the highest prices at Christie's and Sotheby's summer auctions of pre-20th-century works. At the same time, the British capital is reinforcing its reputation as the world's leading art souk, where the international rich can buy masterpieces from just about any culture and era, with the opening of four galleries specializing in museum-quality objects from the ancient world.

The rise in sales of stellar objects from Egypt, Greece, Rome and other ancient civilizations can be attributed in part to their timeless appeal. They're attracting purchases from contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons and Marc Quinn, as well as impulse buyers from other collecting fields. The diversity of this client base, as well as the museum-proven quality of the artifacts themselves, make antiquities consistent sellers at international art fairs like Tefaf Maastricht and Frieze Masters.

"The prices of top antiquities have gone through the roof," said the collector-turned-trader Lorne Thyssen, who opened Kallos Gallery, a dealership devoted to top-of-the-range ancient Greek artifacts, on Davies Street, Mayfair, in May. "But over all they're undervalued. There's still a long way to go, particularly in terms of crossover buying from contemporary art collectors."

The son of the Dutch-born industrialist and art collector Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, Mr. Thyssen, 51, has been buying Roman antiquities for about eight years. He paid $23.8 million for a second-century A.D. marble bust of the Emperor Hadrian's favorite, Antinous, at Sotheby's New York, in 2010. He regards the very top of the market for ancient Greek art, however, as a relatively neglected area. "I know the top 10 collectors of ancient art, and I don't know anyone trying to put together a collection of Greek antiquities," he said.

Backed by his family's wealth, Mr. Thyssen is "keeping the bar high," as he puts it. Kallos (Greek for "beauty") is offering a sixth-century B.C. terra-cotta enthroned kore, or draped female figure, at Pounds 4.5 million, or about $7.5 million; and a stag- shaped Parthian silver drinking horn for Pounds 3 million.

Despite the optimism of dealers like Mr. Thyssen, the international market for antiquities faces a serious, elephant-in- the-room problem. Buying and selling ancient art might be as old as antiquity itself -- the Emperor Hadrian was an enthusiastic collector of Greek statuary -- but only a small percentage of the pieces that now come on the market have an ownership history that predates the 1970 Unesco convention prohibiting the trade in illicitly exported cultural artifacts. This is what made historically documented objects like Christie's Pounds 15.8 million Old Kingdom painted stone sculpture of an inspector of scribes (bought by the Marquess of Northampton in the 19th century) and Sotheby's Pounds 9.4 million first-century A.D. Roman Imperial marble statue of Aphrodite (owned by the Duke of Northumberland's family) so desirable.

Below these headline prices, the market remains small. Christie's said its auction sales of antiquities dropped from Pounds 34.5 million in 2010 to just Pounds 17.5 million -- the price of one Gerhard Richter -- in 2013. Concerns about provenance remain an issue in this market, but so does the decline of the "connoisseur" middle-range buyer. "Specialist antiquities collectors have diminished," said the London-based dealer Rupert Wace. "There aren't so many of them around any more. …

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