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Ancient Dreams

Greek and Roman artworks, among the greatest expressions of the human imagination, are both available and affordable.


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While educated people no longer fill their leisure time by composing poetry in Greek, and only a small minority of high-school students opt for the rigors of Latin over French or Spanish, the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, and especially its art, still has power over our imaginations. And even for someone not deeply imbued with awe for Classics, there is magic in the experience of seeing and touching a work in marble, bronze or clay that was formed by a human being millennia ago. The muscular grace of line and storytelling prowess of an Attic vase, the intense realism of a Roman portrait bust, the mythical otherworldliness of a Greek bronze mask possess a power that can induce possessiveness—or perhaps, a state of being possessed. Fortunately for those who fall victim, many excellent examples of ancient Greek and Roman art are available, and at prices that are for the most part surprisingly low.

Of course, the splashy headlines made by auction sales of “best-of-the-best” rarities can give the opposite impression. A Roman Imperial marble group of Leda and the Swan went for $19.1 million at Sotheby’s New York in December 2011, and a Late Hellenistic bronze figure of Artemis and the Stag brought $28.6 million at the same house in June 2007, still a record for any Greek or Roman antiquity. Christie’s still holds the record for any classical marble sculpture, set in June 2002 when a prince of Qatar paid £7.9 million ($11.6 million) for the so-called Barberini Venus (after the Roman noble family that owned it in the 17th century).

Still though, that kind of money, if you have it, will buy you half a Rothko at best. In the words of Jerome Eisenberg, owner of Royal-Athena Galleries in New York and a 58-year veteran of the trade, antiquities are “ridiculously underpriced compared to contemporary art.” Randall Hixenbaugh, another dealer in New York, says, “Relative to the rest of the art and antiques market, all antiquities are undervalued. This is readily evident when a collector who is accustomed to collecting in other areas, like contemporary or modern art, begins collecting antiquities and easily buys up masterpieces for sums that antiquities dealers and collectors are not accustomed to spending. With proper guidance, one could put together a top-notch collection of say, Greek vases, Greek armor or Roman statuary for well under a million dollars. Excellent pieces are readily available for tens of thousands of dollars each, and sometimes much less.”

Many very worthwhile works, ranging from palm-of-the hand-sized on up, are affordable to the non-wealthy. “I’ve sold many pieces to teachers, professors, people who don’t have a lot of money,” says New York dealer Robert Haber. Dealers, as a rule, advise collectors to buy the best-quality examples in any given category, within their price range. In the realm of ancient art, quality and condition do not always go hand in hand, due to the ravages of very long periods of time. Many excellent pieces have damage, and a collector’s success at acquisition may depend on his or her willingness to overlook it. In particular, works of high artistic quality that have good overall finish but are missing parts can be an excellent buying opportunity. Haber points out that it requires a certain level of imagination to “complete” the piece, perceptually speaking, and an appreciation of this historical background helps, as well. The field of antiquities collecting, he says, “is as large as your imagination and as deep as your intellect.”

According to Eisenberg, Greek and Roman terra cottas and smaller bronzes are very good buys. Expect to pay between $5,000 and $15,000 for terra cottas and between $10,000 and $25,000 for bronzes. “Good vases are quite active on the market,” he adds. “Smaller Attic examples start at about $15,000.” Considering that vases from 4th and 5th-century B.C. Athens are among the greatest works of art in human history, that’s not bad at all. At a much lower price point, Royal-Athena has a Corinthian vase painted with dancing figures from circa 600 B.C. for only $1,650. Roman portraits, Eisenberg says, generally start around $75,000, although they can be found for as low as $50,000. Again, to put it in perspective, such pieces, many of which are highly individual, warts-and-all revelations of personality and physicality, are among the greatest examples of naturalistic portrait sculpture ever made, anywhere. Currently, Eisenberg is offering a marble head of the Roman comic playwright Menander, from the late 1st century A.D., almost 10 inches high, for $67,500. Hixenbaugh recommends Greek armor as an interesting sub-field. He has five ancient Greek bronze helmets, dating from the time of the battle of Marathon through the age of Alexander the Great, at prices from $15,000 to $65,000 each. “Medieval armor of the same rarity and quality costs much more,” he observes.

Haber recommends small ancient bronzes as an undervalued collecting opportunity. “They’re very underpriced,” he says. “Why? Fashion. It’s hard for people to appreciate small things. It takes focus, understanding, knowledge. Size can get in the way of connoisseurship.” Haber is offering a small bronze figure from Sardinia (before 500 B.C.) that resembles a Giacometti sculpture in its sticklike, erect form. Part of its beauty lies in its encrustation of green corrosion. Haber stresses that the antiquities field is one in which study is important, in that the more one knows about the history of objects, the more one appreciates them and understand their relative importance. “Certainly there are buying opportunities now, but the collector has to put in some time to learn about what they’re collecting,” he says. “There are great opportunities to buy small objects which have a lot of meaning, but you have to be assiduous in looking through auction catalogues. It’s also important to find good dealers and rely on their advice.” Needless to say, authenticity is an issue, and proper attribution as to time and place is not always in the offing.

Those who are willing to buy at auction instead of relying on dealer expertise may in be able to save a little bit of money—or pay more if “auction fever” takes hold. This month, Christie’s and Sotheby’s are holding antiquities sales in New York, at which some very impressive material will be on the block. One June 5, Sotheby’s will be offering a Roman Imperial marble figure of the Capitoline Aphrodite, from the 1st–2nd century A.D. (est. $180,000–220,000). Copied after a late Hellenistic work, it portrays the goddess standing on a support in the form of the god Eros riding a dolphin. A Hellenistic marble head of a Ptolemaic queen, circa 3rd–2nd century B.C., with provenance to the collection of the princes of Murat in 19th-century Naples, is estimated at $45,000–65,000. And in the highly collectible category of ancient jewelry, a cameo carved of sardonyx, with portraits of a man and a woman who are most likely the Roman emperor Caligula and his empress Antonia Minor, in a 19th-century gold mount, is estimated at $300,000–500,000. Sotheby’s experts consider it possible that the couple are actually Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia, but in any case they consider it Julio-Claudian and assign it to the period 37–41 A.D.

Across town at Christie’s, the offerings will be highlighted by a Roman marble group of Cupid and Psyche, circa 1st century A.D., almost 31 inches high (est. $100,000–150,000) and a very striking Roman gilt silver skyphos (or two-handled bowl) decorated in relief with a scene of a hunter struggling with a wild beast, also dated to the 1st century B.C., 6 5/8 inches wide (est. $500,000–700,000).

The antiquities auction market is doing quite well now, despite the economy. On May 1, Bonhams in London achieved some spectacular results for its antiquities sale, which featured artworks from the collections of classic-era Hollywood celebs Anthony Quinn and Vincent Korda. A Roman marble draped female figure from the 1st–2nd century A.D. sold for £111,650, and a Hellenistic-period Greek marble bust of a goddess (circa 3rd century B.C.) went for £109,250.

Some attribute the heat of this market to lack of supply of good salable material—by which they generally mean material with proper provenance. In today’s world, proper provenance means that the object was excavated before 1970, the year in which the UNESCO Convention to prevent the illicit trafficking in cultural property was signed. Anything after that date is considered a looted antiquity—readers will recall recent news headlines having to do with Metropolitan Museum’s repatriation (after much litigation) of the celebrated Euphronios krater, one of the finest Attic vases known to exist, which was looted in Italy in the early 1970s and bought by the Met soon thereafter. While no one in the trade wants to deal with looted material, dealers acknowledge that obtaining provable provenance can be difficult, and most all who will speak about the subject express resentment toward what they see as the archaeology profession’s total opposition to collecting antiquities. “Of course we do support appropriate provenance research,” says Haber. “But there’s a fervor on the part of archaeologists to enforce an unrealistic and unfounded ban. There’s a lot of intimidation built into the enforcement of 1970 as a cutoff date.” He points out that various countries signed the Convention at different dates after 1970, causing some works that came on the market in between 1970 and those dates to become “orphan” works—unsalable despite the fact that they are officially legal and were bought in good faith. Eisenberg cites the need for impeccable provenance—and the relative scarcity of the needed documentation—as a major reason for rising prices at the high end of the market. “Since these things not being excavated anymore, at least not legally, early provenance brings a big premium. There’s a lack of supply.” The holy grail is bona fide paperwork showing that an object was already on the market well before 1970, and old collections such as the aforementioned Barberini are best of all.

Hixenbaugh argues that this state of affairs has been going on for long enough now that it can’t be taken as a reason for recently rising prices. “I think it’s a myth that a sudden lack of material has driven up the market. The antiquities market is an entirely secondary market, in the sense that nothing recently excavated of any importance enters its upper echelons. Dealers and auction houses are focused on acquiring pieces from old collections with documented provenance. Collectors are looking for the same. To some degree, the supply of top-quality objects diminishes over time due to pieces being acquired by museums. But most American museums rely on donation rather than outright purchase when it comes to antiquities. All of that having been said, there is a certain frenzy when exquisite and important pieces emerge onto the market for the first time in decades from private collections.” For the average collector, however, and certainly for the new collector, such issues are highly unlikely to pose any kind of problem.

This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Ancient Dreams”

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: June 2013

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