Art market

The market for antiquities, unfazed by protesters, is growing

As last month’s antiquities sales boomed, The Art Newspaper surveyed leading dealers and specialists in New York


December is the month for antiquities in New York. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s hold their twice annual sales and private dealers mount a round of exhibitions. The field is riddled with controversy, ranging from questions of authenticity and provenance to more grave accusations of looting and selling stolen objects, but the success of this past month’s events indicate that the market for antiquities is nonetheless growing.

New York has emerged as one of the most, if not the most, important centre for the antiquities trade. One index to New York’s growing importance is the increasing number of European dealers now establishing their presence in the city. At Brian and Anna Haughton’s International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show this past October, for instance, six dealers presented antiquities, double the number exhibiting a decade ago. London-based James Ede, the latest entrant to the fair, reported substantial sales. Last month, London dealer Robin Symes rented space on the Upper East Side to show Hellenic objects.

The Art Newspaper spoke to auction house specialists, museum curators and dealers to learn precisely how this market is changing.

How many clients at $50,000 p.a.? What is their profile?

David Keresey, Sotheby’s New York: "The number is double what it was ten years ago. Worldwide at auction, 70% of private buyers are serious collectors; by profession many are physicians, attorneys, Wall Street traders or technology entrepreneurs. Latin Americans are also collecting in this area."

G. Max Bernheimer, Christie’s New York: "The major difference between now and five years ago is a steady climb in clients every year, with twenty to thirty new buyers at each sale."

Torkom Demirjian, Ariadne Fine Arts: "About 160 buyers spend upwards of $50,000 a year."

Dr Jerome Eisenberg, Royal Athena Galleries: "Of our 1,000 active clients, several dozen are spending more than $100,000 a year and a few are spending over $1 million. Very few begin completely fresh; many have a background in ancient history." Of his newest clients spending significant sums, the majority are not from the northeast but from Canada, Switzerland and Belgium.

Frederick Schultz: "More than half a dozen."

Michael Ward sees his client base in this price range and higher as doubling in number over the past five years. He counts forty clients.

Samuel Merrin: "The base that is growing most is the highly educated group, aware of art-market prices and buying top quality objects. Some also collect Old Masters as contemporary art. He has about thirty clients spending over $50,000."

Why the growing interest?

The stock market is driving the trade, say a number of dealers. But, as Mr Ward points out, the antiquities market is undervalued, unlike other areas, such as US painting. “For $1 million, a client can put together a noteworthy collection,” he adds. An increasing number of museum exhibitions and the recently reopened Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the gallery shows, also spur interest. “There’s also an emotional factor. Antiquities represent a less crazed world and there’s something reassuring about going back to the roots,” says Mr Keresey.

What about concerns over illicit trade?

“It’s a dying dinosaur issue,” says Frederick Schultz, who ensures that his examples do not have a dubious past. But concerns about authenticity may explain the prices being relatively low, says Mr Bernheimer. “Especially when prices are high, far above the $50,000 range, questions are asked about the safety of such a purchase,” says Mr Ward. Some clients are scared off, admits Mr Merrin, but he cites the increasing presence of antiquities on the museum scene as correcting those fears. “Provenance is a far greater issue than the legality of objects,” says Dr Eisenberg, who not only guarantees the authenticity of an object but also the description, including specific dating.

“Archaeological considerations are no longer paramount; now there is increasing emphasis on aesthetics over rarity,” according to Mr Demirjian

What is the role of museums?

Among other current, major antiquities exhibitions, the Met is showing “Egyptian art in the age of the pyramids” and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is hosting “Pharaohs of the sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Tutankhamen” (see p. 61) All of the dealers surveyed believe that museums play a strong role in raising visibility and sparking interest. Museums also play an important role in nurturing private collections. At the Boston Museum, their “Friends of art of the ancient world” now number about 100, up from fifty two years ago. The Met Friends’ group, the Philodoroi, has seventy-three members, up from fifty-five five years ago. Entry level donation is $6,000.

What part do fairs play?

“Fairs are way of defending ourselves against the auction houses and creating a deadline-focused sales environment,” says Mr Schultz who sold a Roman sculpture of Diana, first-second century AD, to a new US client for $150,000 in the October Haughton fair. “Also, fairs are a convenient way for a husband and wife to shop together.”

“I believe in fairs for educating clients,” says Dr Eisenberg, who shows at both Maastricht and Basel.

Are decorators influencing this market?

New York interior designer Robert Metzger has long been known for his use of Roman busts, but other designers are also now turning towards antiquities. Both Mr Bernheimer and Mr Keresey see decorators as an important factor. During the 1980s decorators began buying strongly and now they are beginning to come back, reports Mr Merrin.

Top areas?

Egyptian artifacts are the most highly requested examples, say auction house specialists and dealers, but the problem is finding great pieces where there is a finite supply. “The very best are sold within two days,” says Mr Merrin. He cites selling an eighteenth-dynasty bust of a female in black granite of outstanding quality and with a solid provenance for over $1 million in October.

Near Eastern art is perhaps the weakest area because it is difficult to understand, but Mr Schultz sees considerable interest in Celtic and pre-Celtic. He recently sold a major piece, a first-century bronze Celtic sword, with anthropomorphic hilt, to the Met.

“Classical art rates two to three times more over Egyptian,” says Mr Keresey. But Dr Eisenberg sees that an increasing number of new clients are gravitating towards Egyptian because of the museum shows.

Rising values?

“Greek vases are going up more in value and with greater rapidity than any other areas and bronzes are going down,” says the Sotheby’s specialist. Part of the attraction of Greek vases is availability, as well as the broad price range (beginning at $5,000 and going up to the seven figures). The inherently beautiful—whether it be a Greek vase, a classical head or Egyptian relief, characterised by superlative form, subject, and perhaps most of all, condition—goes for higher prices, points out Mr Demirjian.

Mr Merrin observed that prices for classical bronze figures of animals have been depressed, but are beginning to make a comeback. “They are the buy of today,” he says. Great figural sculpture, be it classical or Egyptian, is most in demand, says Mr Schultz. Only the bottom market, where objects are under $3,000, has not risen in price, says Mr Bernheimer.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as Unfazed by protesters