Ancient objects truly are wonderful things. You really can touch the past. Our material culture is both diverse and extensive. Subsequently there are countless ancient objects circulating on the open market, many more than I imagined when I first became captivated by them.
The excitement of owning these ancient and often beautiful objects is like no other. Also it is amazing how they often have a dramatic impact when placed in a contemporary setting. They change the dynamics of a room in a unique way. Friends and visitors marvel at them. This is why I believe it is so important that ancient objects can remain in private hands. We should all be able to own and cherish these wonderful remnants of our past. Far better they be cherished and admired, than boxed and locked in a museum vault, often never to see the light of day again. Museums and archaeological units all over the world are bursting at the seams with objects that we will NEVER see.
Almost all ancient objects appreciate in value. The larger, more artistically pleasing and rare can appreciate at levels well above inflation. For some objects, particularly in strong economies, 8% to 10% annually is not uncommon. And whilst seeing these objects as an investment is not something that I aspire too, it is certainly something you can consider.
However, to the inexperienced, this is a hobby filled with expensive pitfalls. Antiquities have been forged for hundreds of years; the Romans in particular forged Greek sculpture, and with advances in modern technology, it is becoming much easier for those who seek to profit from deception.
The vast majority of antiquities dealers are honest and knowledgeable. However, there is not a dealer or collector who has not been fooled by a fake at some time. The most experienced dealers, museums curators and collectors can be fooled by photographs or the indeed actual item. Sometimes it is not possible to be truly confident about an item without handling it, and even then there can be concerns which require investigation.
Antiquities cover many periods, cultures, materials and styles. The most popular antiquities are often the most widely faked: Egyptian (almost everything), Greek pottery, Roman lamps and glass. Fakes are detected through experience, research and analysis. Many are instantly recognisable to the experienced collector, but others are not. There are probably now as many fake items in circulation as genuine ones!
So there is no substitute for knowledge and experience. Study the field which interests you as much as possible. Proper research before a purchase is better than finding out that you have been cheated. Invest in good reference books (I have as many books as objects) and visit museums, handle objects at every opportunity. Buy cheap fragments which are genuine to help you get to get the "feel" of ancient pieces. If you are not confident in your ability to detect fakes, take the item to a good museum, dealer or auctioneer with a specialist antiquities expert.
Internet groups and forums are a good way of exchanging knowledge and checking reputations. People can share their knowledge or experiences with others who share their interests. The largest discussion group for antiquities is 'AncientArtifacts' on Yahoo. They publish a list of dealers they consider to be honest. I thoroughly recommend you join us.
The best advice I can give to anyone starting out in collecting antiquities is to stay off eBay! At least half of the objects currently in the antiquities section are fakes, reproductions or are described incorrectly. You can write almost anything on the internet, so beware! Don't succumb to the lure of a bargain, or you may find that you've been had.
Provenance is the term used to describe the history of an archaeological object since it was excavated and is also a good indicator of authenticity. This may include when and where it was found, details of previous ownership, auction or if it's been published. Unfortunately provenance for many antiquities is modest, such as 'from a deceased estate'. However this may be valuable information to a collector or researcher in the future, so always keep any paper-work associated with an item. Provenanced antiquities generally have higher values and hold their values should you decide to sell.
Finally all purchases should include proper guarantees and should describe an object clearly with a photograph. As well as the guarantee, you should have the opportunity to return items bought from photographs on the internet for an acceptable period after the sale, if you are not happy, for any reason. In the UK we offer buyers statutory rights to return items bought this way for two weeks after the sale. I extend this to 28 days for international shipping.
My top tips for avoiding fakes
Pottery: If you dampen an unglazed area of ancient pottery it should give off a musty soil smell. Also almost all ancient pottery has some surface damage, wear or patination, even if minute. Very few objects survive without history etched into them. So if necessary, get your magnifying glass out!
Glass: Avoid pieces with thick surface encrustation. This is a favourite for fakers and often covers up filler and damage. You should be able to see most of the glass clearly. Multicoloured glass is heavily faked. Ancient colours erode at different rates. If the erosion is even, it may be fake? Mosaic glass and beads with figurative decoration such as Roman face beads, offered at bargain prices are almost always fake.
Bronze: Avoid crude pieces, those with no patina (colour depth) and those with a powdery lime-green virdigris are almost always fake.
Stone/Marble: Avoid pieces with sharp edges to the decoration, and again, I would expect to see some surface degradation or areas of damage.
Faience: Ancient Egyptian items, particularly ushabtis, scarabs and amulets are heavily faked and are a real minefield for the novice. Avoid anything which does not absorb water when left on the surface, ancient faience is nearly always porous. If the surface is very hard, it is indicative of a tourist fake. Again look out for signs of age on the surface: crazing, iridescence or wear.
In all objects, look for surface patination incorporating different colours, degradation and wear. This is usually a GOOD sign!
Care and Preservation
Antiquities have been around much longer than any of us who are privileged to own them. Many are thousands of years old. With great age often comes fragility, so here are some basic guidelines for the care and preservation of antiquities.
Environment: Provide a stable and protected environment against things that may cause damage, wear or oxidisation. The major factors that can lead to damage are changes in temperature and humidity, strong (especially direct) sunlight, chemicals (including household sprays) and physical stress. Sprays, deodorants and cleaning agents contain many chemicals that can cause damage to ancient pottery and bronze. Chlorine and ammonia are perhaps the worst. The stronger it smells, the more likelihood of damage. If you are using these chemicals, minimise exposure by opening windows and ensuring good ventilation.
Storage: For most objects, a glass cabinet, out of direct sunlight, is the most suitable and desirable place to store and display antiquities. They provide adequate protection and minimise sudden changes in temperature and humidity. Always keep cabinets locked for security and preferably site away from communal areas. Of course many larger objects like sculpture and bronzes look great as a focal point in a room, and can be easily dusted over. But make sure they are sited where children and pets cannot accidentally damage them.
Handling: ALWAYS wear gloves. Either cotton or PVC are fine. Avoid touching ancient objects with your hands. You will be surprised how much oil and moisture you have on your hands; you don't want to be leaving sticky and potentially corrosive marks over your precious items. Always handle over a cushioned surface. Yes, I've dropped something before and it's an expensive shock!
Cleaning: It's always best to keep household dust off ancient objects. That said, large objects like bronzes can be dusted off with relative ease. Never vacuum. Always handle in a way that minimises stress to the object.
Please don't hesitate to contact me about anything covered in this guide. I will be pleased to be of assistance.