Antiquities weather the market

Financial Times, August 18 2006

Even a disfigured face can fetch $3m from the right buyer, writes Kathryn Tully

Queen Mutnodjmet's face is calm, dignified and relaxed. Befitting an Egyptian monarch, her expression is cool and confident with a girlish beauty. Her skin looks velvety soft.

Unfortunately for the queen, her nose was hacked off and her eyes gouged out, possibly by an opponent of her husband Pharaoh Horemheb's reign. Other than that, she has weathered the 3,300 years since she was created remarkably well. And, if you have $3m to spare, she can be yours.

In recent months, much of the attention on the antiquities trade has focused on demands by Greece, Italy and Egypt for US museums to return national treasures that they say were looted. At the end of last year, the Rome trial began of Marion True, the former antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and art dealer Robert Hecht, who are charged with conspiring to bring looted and smuggled antiquities out of Italy. Both deny the charges.

In February, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to return 20 pieces to Italy, including the Euphronios Krater, a Greek vase it bought more than 30 years ago, in return for the long-term loan of other pieces. The Italian Ministry of Culture and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are close to making a similar agreement. Tensions are also high over the looting of the National Museum of Baghdad during the fall of the city in April 2003.

But this has not sapped demand for legitimate, well provenanced, properly documented antiquities - in fact, it has increased it. The sale of works from recent excavations is illegal and there is a finite supply of the most precious pieces that can be traded legitimately because they were in circulation before countries such as Egypt, Greece and Turkey passed their most recent cultural patrimony laws. Once pieces are bought by a museum, there is no further chance to buy them, so private collectors and curators are in hot pursuit.

"Media attention has been focused on the contested pieces but there are plenty of things that are free of repatriation issues and those are the things that people are hot after," says Max Bernheimer, head of international antiquities at Christie's in New York. "The lower end of the market is basically unchanged, the mid-range pieces are increasing somewhat but prices for the top-tier pieces are inc-reasing the most."

Christie's holds the record for the highest amount fetched for an antiquity at a public auction. The so-called Jenkins Venus, a Roman marble statue from the first or second century AD, fetched �7,926,650 at sale in London in 2002. Bernheimer says it is hard to predict whether the record could be eclipsed because those who pushed the price to that level are not active now.

Queen Mutnodjmet was first sold at auction in Basel, Switzerland, in 1981 for about $82,500. She was later owned by Norbert Schimmel before being sold at Sotheby's in New York in 1992 for $451,000. A US collector bought her, then sold her to antiquities dealer Phoenix Ancient Art. The fact that she is now being offered for sale for $3m suggests her value has appreciated sixfold in 14 years. "She is so beautiful," says Hicham Aboutaam, co-owner of Phoenix Ancient Art and head of its New York gallery. "She was very difficult to get hold of but we are so excited to have her."

At another New York antiquities dealer, treasures are being snapped up as fast as they can be obtained. "Prices are going up in a real and tangible way," says Joseph Coplin, co-owner of Antiquarium Ltd.

"I would never recommend buying antiquities for short-term investment as you would buy paper. But if you need a place to put money and keep money, and enjoy something very beautiful in the meantime, you will make money."

Coplin has seen prices go up year-on-year for a decade and he thinks they will accelerate further given the finite supply of the best-quality, well-provenanced pieces. And new buyers are continually coming into the market. Private collectors account for a growing proportion of Aboutaam's business. "Two days ago we had a new buyer, a private individual who is in banking. He received one of our recent catalogues, came in to see the piece he liked, and bought it."

In spite of the rapid price appreciation of the finest pieces, Aboutaam believes antiquities offer value compared with modern works. A price of more than �7m for the Jenkins Venus is nothing compared with the $135m Ronald Lauder paid for a Gustav Klimt portrait earlier this year.

Aboutaam says that in antiquities, you can still buy the best in class. "Queen Mutnodjmet is one of the world's finest Egyptian sculptures. It's not like a Renoir or a Rembrandt, where the top 20 or 30 don't ever get to the market because they're in permanent collections," he says.

Aboutaam believes the Romans were more clued up about values than modern buyers are. In his vault is stored an 18 centimetre statuette, thought to be of the goddess Hera, valued at $1.4m. It is being held for a museum that is raising the funds to buy her.

Inevitably, the recent looting allegations have caused new worries for potential private collectors. "People are certainly asking more questions and that's good," says Bernheimer.

A vocal group of archaeologists believes the commercial trade in antiquities should be banned because dealers drive the price up, which encourages the looting of archaeological sites. Dealers contend that museums only exist and digs are only funded because there are legitimate channels through which antiquities can be bought. "My wife is an archaeologist," Coplin says. "It took us two years to meet from the time our friends wanted to get us together because she couldn't see how they could think that she would like someone who dealt." She is now writing a paper about market economies and arch-aeology because she believes one can't exist without the other.

Aboutaam contends that dealers' due diligence, and organisations such as the Art Loss Register that run checks on potential purchases against databases of stolen treasures, make it virtually impossible for the most valuable items to be sold in the legitimate market. He recently tipped off authorities that black-market figures were offering him the headless 4,400-year-old statue of King Entemena of Lagash, plundered from the National Museum of Baghdad in 2003.

King Entemena was on the FBI's list of the 10 most wanted stolen artworks and the tip-off helped authorities to retrieve it. But Iraqi officials are still dismayed that, three years on, so many pieces from the collection - one of the most important in the Middle East - are still missing. The aim now is to make the historically opaque antiquities trade more transparent. Phoenix Ancient Art and Antiquarium explain to buyers the historical importance of a piece and suggest what books to read on the subject. They also offer buyers a guarantee that the object is authentic, from the period stated, that there are no prior claims on it from a third party, and that it has been imported according to the law.

But problems remain. In May, Egypt demanded the immediate return of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy mask from the St Louis Art Museum, which it had bought from Phoenix An-cient Art in 1998. Egypt claimed it was stolen from a storage room where the mask was excavated in Saqqara, Egypt. The mus-eum says it bought the mask with a detailed provenance and it checked with Interpol, the Art Loss Register and the Egyptian museum in Cairo to ensure it was not stolen. Aboutaam says risks exist but they are quite minimal. "If you consider how many pieces we have had problems with out of the ones we have sold or possessed, we can count six or seven out of thousands."

Some pieces have extremely long ownership histories. The provenance of a more than life-size Hellenistic veiled head of a woman from Attica from the fourth century BC, held by Phoenix and worth $1.5m, shows that she was once stolen - and returned. She was confiscated by the Nazis from a private Hungarian collection during the second world war and in 1945 was returned to Vienna, where her rightful owners had moved.

But the evidence can be patchy. Coplin says: "If you bought something for $100 in 1950, if you got a receipt at all it's unlikely that you kept it. But that could be worth six figures now."

So how can buyers avoid the pitfalls when investing in ancient art? "They should buy only from reputable dealers or auction houses and they should always ask about provenance and get it in writing. When possible, they should consult with museum experts or get a second opinion, because you don't want to rely on one voice," says Bernheimer. This is crucial as there is plenty of room for confusion over date and origin. The difference in value between a Greek head of Apollo and a much later Roman copy, for example, could be more than $1m.

The most important consideration, though, is whether you love the piece. There would be little point in buying Queen Mutnodjmet if you did not intend to enjoy her for years to come.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007