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The Emerging Market for Ancient Antiquities in the U.S.
by Bob Brooke


While selling ancient objects, collectively known as antiquities, is a common practice in England and some countries in Europe where history goes back a much longer way than in America, it’s somewhat new here. This is due partly because of strict regulations governing the import and sale of ancient items. But through the magic of the Internet, sales like this can now offer antiquities to a global market.

What exactly is the antiquities market?
The antiquities market concentrates on artifacts, including both objects created as art in antiquity, such as ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek sculptures, and objects originally created for ritual or religious purposes.

A market for these objects has existed since ancient times. Early collectors focused primarily on artwork from Greece and Rome until the 19th century. But increased access to other areas of the world, the changing tastes of private collectors, and expanding role of museums led to interest in obtaining antiquities from other cultures. Recently, concerns have arisen about the looting of archaeological sites to obtain antiquities that then appear in the legal market with forged paperwork.

The modern antiquities market emerged in 16th-century Rome, when the demand
of papal and princely collectors caused its ancient ruins to be mined for marble statues.
In the centuries that followed, the range of the market expanded until by the end of the 20th century artifacts from most cultures of the world were being traded

By that time, most countries also enacted legislation aimed at protecting archaeological heritage and preventing the loss abroad of cultural artifacts. The result was the creation of an antiquities black market. For most of the 20th century, experts viewed the antiquities market as a mercenary and destructive force, but not one that was of direct archaeological relevance. Therefore, archaeologists did little to combat it. After the Second World War, the demand for artifacts began to cause the widespread and large-scale looting of archaeological sites.

In 1970, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Cultural Property, which it hoped to control the market by placing restraints on trade and providing mechanisms for the return of stolen and illegally traded pieces. By the beginning of the 1990s the situation had gotten out of control.

A Special Kind of Auction House
Ancient Resource Auctions, an online-only auction house specializing in ancient antiquities, has held a series of auctions since 2009 that have included lots of authentic, well-provenanced ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Near Eastern, Islamic, Byzantine and Pre-Columbian antiquities and ethnographic items. They sell only well-provenanced objects from ancient to medieval civilizations.

While the variety offered by the auction company has been very good, the results of some 78 auctions hasn’t been stellar. In fact, the early auctions hardly sold anything. This speaks to the level of interest that antiquities garner in America. Even so, the items that did sell were impressive. As with anything this unique, it will take time.

Looting of artifacts has always been a sign of military might or economic power. Over thousands of years, conquering generals took trophies to adorn their cities. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, wealthy aristocrats made “grand tours” of classical sites and acquired—through whatever means—everything from vases to statues to entire temple friezes to show off at home. Owning a piece of antiquity was seen as demonstrating wealth, a love of ancient culture and, ultimately having things that nobody else could had.

Why Has the Antiquities Market Been Slow to Grow in the U.S.?
The main reason for the low interest in antiquities in the U.S. has to do with its history. While advanced pre-Columbian cultures flourished in Central and South America, nothing like that except perhaps for the Anastasi in the American Southwest comes even close. And while Native American cultures flourished all over the North American continent, much of their ancient history went unrecorded.

Another reason that antiquities haven’t sold well in the U.S. is that many collectors viewed them as way above their budget level. Granted the finest pieces do sell for four and five figures, but there are many available in the three-figure range.

What makes Ancient Resource Auctions unusual in this antiques category is that its lots include a wide range of objects selling for a wide range of prices. It’s possible to buy an ancient artifact for as little as $100 or as much as $25,000. This enables collectors of different levels and financial standing to bid on interesting items to add to their collections.

At one time only the wealthy could afford to collect antiquities. But now even collectors of modest means can afford to collect small ancient objects like amulets, scarabs, and small statues.

Over the years, Ancient Resource Auctions has offered a wide variety of ancient objects.

On the low end of the scale, it offered and sold for $100 an Egyptian steatite scarab, from the 2nd Intermediate period, from around 1750-1570 BCE. The head was trapezoidal with grooved legs, on a base with an attractive corded pattern.
A Greek terracotta askos, c. 4th - 3rd Century BC, with large mouth in front and a pouring spout in back. H: 5 1/5 in (13.2cm). Encrustation and mineral deposits inside and out. $150

One of the more unique objects was a Coptic terracotta souvenir pilgrim's flask for Saint Menas, from Egypt, dating to AD 480-650. It depicts Saint Menas on one side, flanked by camels, his arms outstretched in blessing. Above each arm is a quincunx, representing a cross; all within a beaded circular border. These small flasks were produced at the pilgrimage center of Abu Mena, south-west of Alexandria, to sell to the devout as a souvenir of a visit. Historians believe they contained holy water or oil from the shrine. It sold for $350.

A large Chinesco solid standing figure, made in Mexico around 100 BCE-250 AD, stands over 9 inches tall. Shown wearing a large elaborate feathered headdress and white slipped pants, it sold for $350.

A large Egyptian faience pectoral scarab of the Ptolemaic Period, from 332-30 BCE, with striated wing case accented by the addition of a red line, contrasting with the nice light blue color, as well as holes around the periphery for attachment of wings and for adhering the scarab to the dressings of a mummy, sold for $375.

A fantastic 21 karat yellow gold scarab bracelet, handsomely constructed with seven Egyptian steatite scarabs of similar size and shape, all but one from the New Kingdom (1570-1075 BCE), including a sphinx, a crocodile and a lion, sold for $500.

A Campanian red-figure lekythos, depicting an Amazon in profile from southern Italy, dating to the 4th century BCE, facing right, wearing a high dragonate helmet and holding an axe in front of her, sold for $950.

An Old Babylonian terracotta plaque depicting a lion, from 2000-1600 BCE, walking to left in fine style with tail curled over its back, sold for $1,250.

An exceedingly rare Taino wooden zemi, a sculptural object said to house a spirit, from around 1000-1500 AD, fashioned from lignum vitae, a member of the creosote tree family and thus resistant to decay and insects. This may be the only wooden zemi known. The gaping mouth suggests a tribute to Yucahu, the primary god of growing and fertility. It sold for.$1,300.

A wonderful Etruscan female votive head on a wooden base from the 4th century BCE, sold for $6,000. The head boasts extremely well-defined and stylish features. She’s wearing earrings and her hair is styled back in waves below a diadem and rolled at the nape of the neck. It’s a superior example of the Etruscan’s mastery of the arts.
One of the most expensive items offered by the auction house was an Egyptian limestone head from a sphinx, from the Ptolemaic Period, dating from 332-30 BCE, depicting a pharaoh wearing a nemes head cloth with lappets and uraeus. The features are handsomely carved. It sold for $8,000.

Besides items from well-known ancient cultures, Ancient Resource Auctions has consistently included objects from mostly the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. The variety of objects offered in all of its 78 auctions to date is truly astounding.

Visit AncientResourceAuctions.com.

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