Starting Collecting

The Basics

CLEARLY the major motivation for collecting antiquities is an interest in past civilisations*. As our own is derived from them, their study can help us put our own world into perspective and teach us that human nature has not changed as much as we might like to think. To be able actually to handle the material culture of our predecessors brings them to life in a way that reading and visiting museums cannot. In addition, many of the objects have highly attractive aesthetic qualities.

Collecting may also, of course, be seen as a form of investment, but in the case of antiquities caution is essential, because of the wide fluctuations of the market. Here it is best always to think long-term. While buying what you like, also spending prudently. Initially, it is very difficult to know what is a good buy and what is not. With antiquities there are perhaps more pitfalls than in most other fields and some will be discussed in this article. So do a considerable amount of homework before making a first purchase. Visit galleries, auctions, fairs and, naturally, museums. Build up contacts with members of the trade, such as those who advertise in the pages of ANCIENT and with local museums. Whenever possible handle objects so as to get a ‘feel’ for them.

I would suggest that the first step is to look at the background of antiquities’ collecting. The whole subject has become quite controversial in recent years and prospective collectors should familiarise themselves with the different aspects of the debate.

Some extremists even oppose the whole idea of private collecting. But humans are naturally acquisitive and collecting is as old as the objects themselves. Prehistoric flints and fossils have been discovered in Roman villas in Britain in contexts which suggest they were prized possessions. The Emperor Hadrian is known to have collected Greek marbles and Egyptian antiquities.

By the sixteenth century monarchs and rich aristocrats were building up fine collections. The taste developed later in England than in much of Europe. This was partly because the main cultural influence was Renaissance Italy and party from a puritanical aversions to acquiring images of heathen deities. A change first began under the Stuart kings. Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, laid the foundations of a coin collection, enlarged after his premature death by his brother Charles, later Charles I, who also acquired gems from the Dutch collector, Abraham Gorlaeus. In 1639, a catalogue prepared by Abraham Vanderdoort, Keeper of the Royal Collection in Whitehall, mentioned 169 statues at St James’s Palace and Somerset House and a further 230 in the Palace of Greenwich, although it is unlikely they were all ancient. During the Commonwealth most of Charles’ collection was sold, though Cromwell managed to hold on to a few of the sculptures.

At this time the leading sculpture collector was undoubtedly Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and Surrey. His considerable collection, though not always of the finest quality, was largely dispersed by his grandson, Henry Howard. However, through the wise intervention of a family friend, the diarist John Evelyn, the majority of pieces were donated to Oxford University.

As European travel increased in the seventeenth century so did interest in the riches of the past. By the eighteenth century the Grand Tour was taking the wealthy young particularly to France, Italy and Greece. From this era emerged the founders of many of today’s great collections—men like Sir William Hamilton, Charles Townley, Cardinal Albani and Henry Blundell. It was from the legacy of another great collector, Sir Hans Sloane, that the British Museum was found. A look at the list of benefactors of the British Museum demonstrates that this tradition continues to this day.

Joanna van der Lande is an Associate Director at Bonhams and the head of Bonhams Antiquities Department. She is also deputy chairman of the Antiquities Dealers Association

Useful Addresses:
The Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) 1997-98 Directory available from the secretary: Susan Hadida, c/o Faustus Ancient Art and Jewellery, 41 Dover Street, London W1X 3RB, UK. The International Association of

Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA). Chairman: James Ede, Charles Ede Ltd., 20 Brook Street, London W1Y 1AD, UK.

Ethics; The Antiquities Trade & Archaeology

The art trade has faced increasing scrutiny in recent years. This has focused largely on the subject of ethics, and in particular the standards used by the trade when acquiring objects for which no firm provenance is available. Whilst this scrutiny has applied to the whole art market, the antiquities trade in particular has faced a barrage of criticism, some of it deserved, but for the most part based on prejudice, ill-will or simply ignorance. It has been particularly galling for scrupulous dealers to see the way in which misinformation quickly becomes accepted as fact; for example Lord Renfrew made an off-the-cuff pronouncement some years ago stating that the trade in illicitly excavated material amounted to some £3,000,000,000 per annum, and was second only to the trade in drugs. This is clearly nonsense, as even he now admits, but journalists have seized on this figure and so the myth is perpetuated. A recent article in the Guardian applied this figure of three billion pounds to annual thefts from Saqqara, a single site in Egypt! This would be laughable, were the implications of such attack not so serious; for what is at stake here is the whole foundation on which the art trade is based, namely that the private ownership of art and the connoisseurship which collecting inspires, are desirable in a cultured society. This tenet has been held by almost everyone for the last five hundred years. It has had an enormously important effect on the way in which the great museums of the world have developed, and this in turn has lead to a much wider appreciation of world cultural heritage. Dealers in antiquities are genuinely shocked therefore to find some academics so bitterly opposed to this process.

The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) was formed in 1993 and from the outset it was clear that one of our most urgent tasks was to address this apparent conundrum. We believe one of our prime functions as dealers is to participate actively in the preservation of the remains of man’s ancient past. For this reason we have decided to take as dispassionate a view as possible of the way things are, with a view to making sensible contributions towards improving the situation. This necessarily includes understanding our opponents’ position. In brief, some archaeologists (and it is important to stress the strong divergence of opinion within the academic community) regard a trade in antiquities as being wholly undesirable, since they believe that the vast majority of objects on the market have been illicitly excavated in recent times with a concomitant destruction of archaeological evidence. Furthermore, many of them believe that an object outside its context is valueless for the purposes of scholarship. The last point is not open to reasoned argument because one either accepts the importance of antiquities from an art historical perspective or not, but the first point is based on ignorance of the true situation, and therefore must be addressed.

Antiquities have been collected for thousands of years – for example the Romans were avid collectors of Greek sculpture – and in this time, the number of pieces coming on to the market ran to millions. Unfortunately their perceived importance has fluctuated down the ages (for example the Arab inhabitants of Egypt routinely used ancient wood sculptures to light fires) and for this reason provenance’s for the vast majority of these works have been lost. War, migration, economic development and sheer indifference have all taken their toll as well. The provenance of large numbers of objects has been discovered by chance, long after they have been sold. It is therefore unacceptable to suggest that lack of provenance means that a particular object has recently been stolen. Very often the source of pieces is deliberately obscured for perfectly legitimate reasons, where, for example, the inheritor of an object does not wish his family to know that he is selling. All these issues serve to muddy the water and to create an environment in which it is possible for those opposed to the trade to maintain the pretence that the majority of objects are on the market illicitly. For these reasons those on the inside know that this is not the case, but it would also be disingenuous of us to suggest that there is not a problem with illicitly excavated or exported material. In fact, these are two separate problems, and in order to address them, we need to understand the historical context.

Most source countries have some form of control over the export of archaeological material; these range from the pragmatic (the U.K, Germany, the Netherlands) to the draconian (Greece, Turkey, Egypt). The fiercest laws were passed at very different times, but are essentially chauvinistic, and it is interesting to note that in almost all cases they have been enacted at a time of nationalistic revival (in Italy under Mussolini, in Greece following the War of Independence from Turkey, in Egypt under Nasser). These laws have been designed to foster a belief in outside cultural imperialism, and are both a symptom and a source of a deep emotional feeling. Unfortunately emotion is a bad basis for legislation, and though these laws have proved remarkably ineffective, their emotional basis makes it very difficult for the relevant authorities to adjust them in a way which might make them work. These laws are also by no means uniform; for whereas some countries (Egypt, Turkey) have taken the drastic step of ‘nationalising’ all antiquities (even when privately owned for generations), others have allowed private ownership, and dealing, to continue. The latter case usually involves a strict embargo on export, and this has served to produce a false, two-tiered market. IADAA believes that ‘nationalisation’ of legitimately held objects amounts to State theft, and that the second case is also indefensible, especially in the context of the European Union: if Europe is to have any meaning as a single entity, surely its cultural heritage must be regarded as common property? Given that such privately owned objects were removed from their context years ago, and we have already seen that anti-trade academics regard such objects as worthless, there is no archaeological argument in favour of them being rigidly chained to their country of origin, any more than all Georgian candlesticks should remain within the United Kingdom. By encouraging smuggling, such laws are having a diametrically opposed effect to that which was intended. Adjustment to encourage the legitimate trade would go a long way towards restricting the smuggling routes on which illicit trade depends, and we hold that free trade need not only apply to privately owned pieces. Government storehouses and museums are bulging with objects which have no recorded provenance and which are extremely poorly conserved due to lack of funds. Surely many of these pieces could also be released to the market, since they are believed to have no archaeological value?

A third area, which deserves consideration, is the problem of chance finds. It is inevitable that a large proportion of excavated material will be found during the course of normal agricultural and economic activity. Draconian laws result in the destruction of the archaeological record unless a proper system of reward exists, since the finder will usually channel such objects into an illicit market. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the penalties for doing so are now so severe that finders are deliberately destroying pieces rather than run the risk of being caught with them. This is an absurd situation. In this respect the laws of the U.K, whilst far from perfect, offer a solution. There a finder has an inducement to declare his discovery. Either the state takes ownership and pays a reward equivalent to the market value, or, if the piece is not of particular importance, ownership is granted to the finder. Either way, the archaeological information is preserved, although it would be even better to formulate a system whereby the reward was greater for finds left in situ whilst the report was made.

One further point needs to be made perfectly clear: IADAA firmly believes that every country has a right (and indeed a duty) to preserve in public ownership the most important cultural objects, and should have a pre-emptive right over new finds. What we are referring to above are the vast majority of antiquities which have no particular importance and which are already more than amply represented in public collections.

There can and should be no doubt that a market for antiquities will continue to exist – man’s interest in his own past, not to mention the legitimate impulse to collect beautiful objects, will see to that – but there is a choice to be made. Either legitimate dealers may be driven out of business by a process of increasing red tape, in which case the illicit trade will flourish, or the legitimate trade may be allowed to exist in a controlled context which would help to strangle the illegitimate traffic. This is a choice, which can only be made by sovereign governments, and it will take immense courage and foresight to arrive at the correct solution, but it must be faced. IADAA is ready and willing to help in any way possible.

Collecting Antiquities

There are many antique shops and dealers in antiques throughout the country. Often they belong to the British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA) or to the London and Provincial Antiques Dealers’ Association (LAPADA); there are also more focused local groups, such as the Cotswolds Antique Dealers’ Association, etc. It is not so easy, however, to find dealers in antiquities. Antiquities call for a high degree of specialist approach and, whilst many people would love to own an antiquity, they are often cautious of buying by virtue of their own lack of knowledge or knowing where to go for what they want.

It is not often realised that just because an object may be centuries, or even several thousand years old, it does not have to be financially inaccessible. The relics of past civilisations are still generally available, subject of course to the laws governing their export, which have been introduced in many of the modern countries that were once the home of ancient civilisations. Despite these restrictions there is an ample supply of objects from older collections that are always being broken up and dispersed, usually through auction houses.

What to buy or collect is one of the big questions facing anyone who wants, literally, to handle the past as represented by its material culture, be it a stone sculpture, small bronzes, jewellery or simply small domestic items like everyday pottery or personal things such as a Roman toilet set with tweezers, cuticle pushers, and so on.

Most people come to antiquities through reading books on ancient history or archaeology. It is quite easy to acquire, for example, a decorative Greek vase made in the Greek colonies of South Italy in the later fourth century BC, around the time that Alexander the Great was pushing eastwards against the Persian empire, carving his way into history and legend. Roman or Palestinian pots and pottery oil lamps made in the early years of the Christian era do not have to cost the proverbial “arm and a leg” and earlier, really attractively shaped and complete pots from Palestine of Old Testament times are easily available at well under £100 a piece.

Enormous range of prices

Obviously, the prices of antiquities cover an enormous range, depending on what the item is. The great Roman silver “Sevso” treasure of 14 silver vessels that was in the news in recent years has been valued as a collection at around £40 million, but that is at the extreme of the available market. Large bronze “crossbow” brooches (fibulae) of that same Late Roman Period, worn like a modern safety pin to secure a cloak or other clothing, can range in price upwards from £30 or so whilst larger, fine examples, naturally command more money, in the region of £200 to £300 each. The point about collecting antiquities is that they provide the opportunity to reach back across the centuries and actually handle the past to, if you like, feel a rapport with the original ancient owner. There is tremendous scope for individual taste in collecting and, not least, for research.

Many “amateur” collectors have made a particular area their very own by detailed study as they have built up their collections. Their knowledge will often surpass that of a curator in a museum, who invariably has to take a broader view, or of the dealer who supplied the items. Buying antiquities, like antiques, tends to be a personal thing. Collectors get to know dealers who stock the items that interest them, and not least, the dealer gets to know his client’s requirements and keeps an eye on the market for available pieces. The dealer will often get as much pleasure in securing items for a collector, helping and watching the collection grow, as does his client – and they both enjoy and learn from the contact.

Most of the antiquities dealers in the UK belong to the Antiquities Dealers’ Association (ADA), and also quite a number of foreign dealers as Corresponding Associate Members. By membership the dealers keep in touch, broaden their own expertise and can collectively act under the Code of Conduct of the ADA, guaranteeing all the objects they sell to the best of their professional knowledge and expertise to be as they are described and of the date stated.

Peter A Clayton
The Antiquities Dealers’ Association

Why Have an Antiquities Trade?

A fairly widely held and longstanding view argues that there is no place for trade in, and private ownership of, antiquities. The only place for them is – at best – in situ at their place of origin or – not quite so good – in a museum.

The archaeologists, academics and others who hold this view see no natural link between themselves and the world of commerce. The trade merely blights pure scholarship and is all about take and no give, they believe; it should be stopped or, at the very least, highly discouraged and certainly frowned upon.

While we respect their views, there is a long tradition of trade and the ADA argues that a legitimate trade controlled by rigorous codes of conduct has its place in the wider field of antiquities and should not simply be seen in isolation.

After all, responsible collectors regard themselves as no more than the temporary curators of ancient objects. It is private and scholarly enterprise that has vastly contributed to bringing into being the museums, national and local, which are a glory of most cultures. Just think of Sir Hans Sloane who had collected over 71,000 objects by the time of his death in 1753. His collection was bequeathed to the nation and it became the founding collection of the British Museum.

A symbiotic relationship has flourished between scholarship and private enterprise in the world of antiquities for centuries.

Collectors helped found the earliest museums

Even the earliest museums were founded on the patronage of private collectors. Take, for instance, the earliest museum of all that we know about, one formed by the Babylonian princess, Ennigaldi-Nanna, in about 530BC. It was excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1925.

In 1471 Pope Sixtus IV donated Roman sculpture to the People of Rome. The Basilius Amerbach cabinet formed the foundation (1661) of the extant collection which graces the Swiss city of Basel. Ignazio Paterno-Castello, 5th Duke of Biscari, opened the first archaeological museum in his palazzo in Syracuse, Sicily in 1757. It was thanks to the generosity and foresight of Edith Pretty that the British Museum is now able to display one its finest treasures, that of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon ship burial, without which we would all be the poorer in our knowledge of early English history.

Right on our doorstep we have the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the oldest continually active purpose-built museum, which opened its doors on May 21, 1683. The core of its original collection came from the horticultural and curiosity collecting Tradescant family via the hands of Elias Ashmole, from whom the institution takes its name. Thus began the rich and enduring tradition of private collectors supporting museums in Britain.

What would we know of Minoan Greek culture, for instance, were it not for the efforts of Arthur Evans (d.1941). Artefacts properly and legally excavated by him now grace the Ashmolean Museum.

Without those collectors past and present acquiring their possessions – often from dealers or auction houses – and the generous bequests that followed, where would these seats of learning be today?

The point of all this is that private individuals contribute enormously to the public ownership and display to those who would be learned.

The value of collecting to scholarship

The trade and the private collector still have much to offer learning, conservation and preservation and have a rich history of contributing to cultural understanding and development, to museums and their collections.

In recent years, the outstanding bequest of the late collector Sir Arthur Gilbert has boosted the holdings of the Victoria & Albert Museum, adding significantly to our understanding of silver and micro-mosaics in particular.

Of course it is not simply museum collections that owe their being to private sponsorship. Private scholarship has also been a major contributor to understanding.

Meanwhile, just as historical and geographical context is all-important to understanding the significance of objects, so it is to understanding the development of scholarship, curatorship and collecting. As time passes, new and unprecedented factors come into play, forcing us to rethink our approach, tighten guidelines and restrict practices. Altering the context of their discovery and excavation, if you like.

While it may be possible to see how one can apply the new set of rules to the excavation and movement of artefacts taking place now, how can we retrospectively insist on the same set of standards for objects that emerged in earlier times under less rigid conditions? The paperwork simply doesn’t exist or, if it does, often does not contain the level of detail required under the new regime since it was not required at the time of issue. One has only to inspect examples of the export licences the Egyptian government issued a quarter of a century ago to appreciate this. What was good enough for officialdom in the country of origin then would prove unacceptable now, but it was their standards by which the international trade operated.

Should this irrevocably blight what was legally and ethically excavated and traded all those years ago? Many say yes, but this seems unduly oppressive. Should museums return to benefactors the collections they were once happy to accept only decades ago? This is not a possibility, it is a reality and collectors are reporting this is already happening. Part of the joy of numerous collectors has been to donate or bequeath their collections to museums for the public benefit. With museums returning and rejecting artefacts it now raises the question of who will be the future custodians of these representations of our past? It is a known fact of human nature that more care is afforded to objects deemed to have value, either monetary or prestige, aside from their academic value. If these same objects are in future regarded with little or no value, their pedigree somehow sullied, then how well will they be looked after and by whom?

How do we strike a balance?

How do we balance this position with the need to ensure that ancient works of art are not the result of recent looting and illegal export? If we could answer this, we would all be happy. What should be clearly appreciated, though, is that it is the differing standards applied to the paperwork then and now that is the true source of tensions at the centre of the debate, not conflicting approaches to the historical and cultural importance of the objects themselves, nor the importance of protecting them and the countries and peoples from which they emerge. Here, happily, the trade and academe can agree. More should be made of this accord.

The Treasure Act 1996, too, has done much to improve matters in recent years. It is very fair and works well.

Striking a balance between public and private ownership is also important. The recent crisis facing the academic Wedgwood collection is a good case in point. A unique reference archive of material explaining the history and manufacturing methods of the great firm of Wedgwood, its future came under grave threat as the result of a peculiar and obscure legal anomaly that left it exposed as the single greatest asset in relation to claims based on the company’s pension fund.

Fortunately the Government and common sense intervened and its future as a single collection of artefacts is now safe. However, no one argues that its importance as such should exclude the private ownership of other pieces of Wedgwood pottery. In fact, it is self evident that encouraging wider collecting of this material will only increase scholarship, interest in and understanding of the central reference collection. This is far more likely to guarantee the continuing status and protection of the reference collection; a ban on private collecting or trade would inevitably lead to a waning of interest and scholarship and the eventual irrelevance of the museum’s holding. What price its future then?

What this tells us is that a lively and active trade and collecting community is vital to the lifeblood of any field of study relating to historical objects.

Trade can help future-proof the study of archaeology

In Egyptian terms, while no one would expect to be able to trade in the treasures of Tutankhamun, a scarab exported under culturally acceptable and easily administered rules does no harm to Egyptology – indeed, it could benefit it if it sparks a child’s imagination and leads them into the world of archaeology. A case of future-proofing par excellence.

We must also take care when considering modern claims over ancient rights. Over time national boundaries change. For example, the Greeks are very sensitive that classical Greek antiquities remain in their country. However, not all ancient Greek art was created within the Greek borders of today. Their ancient culture spread much wider than that. Many works of art that are now catalogued as ‘Greek’, although culturally so were made anywhere between what is now Turkey and the west Mediterranean.

In the more general world of art and antiques, the long-established export rules in Italy, designed to protect its cultural treasures, have been so draconian as to all but kill off its international market, even for the least interesting and significant examples of its art. Waking up to this at long last, the Italian government is now considering relaxing the law for lesser works. While still protecting the treasures, this would not only help its market and revenues, but would undoubtedly foster wider international interest in these lesser artists and the world from which they came.

Conflict throughout Western Asia today also forces us to consider the safety of artefacts. The destruction of the Bamiyan sculptures by the Taliban in 2001 does not argue for the retention of all great art on its native heath. Preserving ancient art exposed to such threats must be the priority for the future, but how best to do it?

Syria is in chaos and the usual controls have broken down. However, as Professor Sir John Boardman, Emeritus of Oxford University, argues, we all have a responsibility to prevent looting and smuggling, including those nations from whom artefacts are removed. Article 5 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention puts the primary burden on the country of origin. As the Convention summarises: “It is essential for every State to become increasingly alive to the moral obligations to respect its own cultural heritage and that of all nations.”

In conclusion then, we must protect cultural heritage wherever it lies and we must take especial care of it in conflict zones. However, in fulfilling this solemn obligation, we must take care not to ignore one aspect of public interest entirely as we pursue another. Otherwise we risk sowing the seeds of future cultural negligence by cutting off the very source and lifeblood of scholarship and interest. As the leading art law counsel William Pearlstein says: “…museums cannot perform their obligations to research, conserve, and exhibit artworks without a vigorous art market.”

Richard Falkiner