Nothing brings the ancient world more alive than handling a real antiquity, and antiquities have been collected ever since the first European travellers visited ancient sites in the Near East and elsewhere. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of individual artefacts have reached private collections over the last three hundred years and the breakup of these collections forms the bulk of the material circulating on the market today. The vast majority of these objects were legally acquired according to the laws of the day and as such can be legally sold and bought today. Here we answer commonly asked questions about collecting antiquities and discuss any ethical issues involved.
Where do all the antiquities come from?
Interest in the past is virtually as old as man. Neolithic flints and fossils have been found during excavations of Roman villas in England in contexts that suggest they were prized possessions. Roman emperors are also known to have collected antiquities from previous civilisations.
By the 16th Century, fine collections of antiquities were being built up by the ruling class in Europe. However, it was the great increase in European travel and the 'rediscovery' of the ancient world from the 17th Century onwards that led to large numbers of antiquities being acquired by private collectors and as traveller's souvenirs. In the 18th and 19th Centuries some very large collections were built up by European antiquarians. Fine collections were also built up by collectors in America and Europe during the first half of the 20th Century. Indeed, until relatively recently, there were active markets in Egypt, Lebanon and Iran where antiquities could be openly bought and sold. The law making all antiquities subsequently discovered in Egypt property of the State was passed only in 1983. Before this date, tens of thousands of Egyptian antiquities were exported from Egypt with full permission of the Egyptian authorities of the time. Vast numbers of artefacts from all cultures are hence in private ownership and form the basis of the antiquities trade today.
Metal detectorists and field walkers also find large numbers of artefacts every year, the majority of which are retained by the finders and subsequently sold and bought. Large auction houses such as Bonhams and Christies hold large sales of antiquities ever year, each often comprising several hundred lots. Antiquities are not necessarily rare and although large painted Greek vases and Egyptian sculpture can fetch fantastic prices, more utilitarian objects, such as oil lamps and arrowheads can be bought for as little as £ 45 ($60).
But isn't there a lot of looted material on the market?
There are unfortunately a few unpleasant vocal extremists in the archaeological community who oppose the very idea of private possession of antiquities. They apparently believe that only they should be able to handle ancient objects. These people frequently suggest that much of the material on the market is looted and illegally exported from the country of origin. This is used as an argument for forbidding the trade and private possession of antiquities.
We believe that the amount of looted material on the market is greatly exaggerated. As shown above the market is largely supplied by the vast amounts of legally acquired antiquities collected over the last 300 years. Indeed, many of the objects in dealers and auction catalogues have been circulating on the market for decades, even centuries. Those opposed to the antiquities trade frequently say that if an antiquity is unprovenanced then there is a good chance that it is looted. This is an argument that can easily be countered. Firstly, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, provenance was often not considered important and so was not recorded. Secondly, it is sometimes the case, that even when a collector has carefully recorded the provenance of an object in his notes, these may get separated from his/her collection and lost, especially when collections are disposed of, after the collector's death, by heirs who may have little interest in antiquities. Thirdly, collectors often record provenance directly on the objects - but unfortunately worn inscriptions and detached labels are all too common. If an item is unprovenanced, the most likely reason for this is that it has been around for a long time on the market and has had a large number of owners.
In reality, the archaeological world, and indeed all of us, owe collectors a great debt of gratitude. Many collectors have made considerable contributions to our museums, enriching their collections and our heritage, and in some cases paying for refurbishment of galleries and displays. The British Museum itself was founded on the legacy of the great collector Sir Hans Sloane.
OK, but should n't antiquities be in museums?
The truth is that if all the antiquities in private hands were collected up and donated to museums, 99% of them would end up in basement storage rooms and never see public display. This is because most antiquities in private collections are common utilitarian objects (of which most museums have many examples already) which have often lost their provenance and context over the many years that they have been on the market (and so are of little scientific or archaeological value). Indeed, many artefacts do not have a context (for instance, the broken flint work axe discarded in the forest while felling trees, the arrowhead from the arrow that went astray while hunting birds in the marshes, the brooch that fell from the traveller's cloak on his journey) and so tell archaeologists nothing.
However, such objects never loose their capacity to enchant and inspire those with imagination and appreciation of past civilisations and the history of mankind. We believe that like the present, the past belongs to us all.
Any visitor to countries of Southern Europe, the Middle East and the Americas (the ultimate sources for many antiquities) will see that local museums commonly have extensive display and reserve collections. Ancient peoples have produced so many artefacts that national and local museums are well provided for, as well as allowing private ownership.
But how can I tell if an antiquity I buy is genuine?
The best guarantee is to buy from a reputable dealer. We provide a life-time guarantee for any object that we sell and will reimburse you with your purchase price, should any object sold by us be determined by expert opinion to be a forgery (provided the object is returned to us in the condition supplied).
Sadly in recent years there has been a great increase in the number of fakes being offered as genuine antiquities particularly on online auction websites. Some are simple 'tourist pieces', which are sold today in source countries, such as Egypt, being presented as genuine ancient artefacts, others are more sophisticated forgeries with forged documents or letters of authenticity purporting to be from museum experts. Warning signs for buyers are 'dealers' who offer limited-time money back policies, hide previous sales as 'private' so authenticity can't be checked and offer supposedly fine antiquities at ridiculously low starting prices for bidding. Fine antiquities normally realise high prices in New York and London salerooms. If a seller is offering a fine Egyptian ushabti at a starting bid of $19.99 - ask yourself why has he not submitted it to Christies or Bonhams where the likihood is that he would be assured of a high price. Remember seller feedback often means nothing - some long-standing notorious fake sellers have 100% positive feedback!
We ourselves have been involved with antiquities for over 25 years and if we are unsure about a piece, we always seek expert opinion. Any antiquities we buy which are then questioned by experts (and some are) will never appear on our website.
You can buy from us with confidence. All our antiquities are guaranteed genuine and are sold fully described and with Certificates of Authenticity.
Antiquities have always enchanted and inspired those with imagination and appreciation of past civilisations.
Remember antiquities make fascinating conversation pieces, good investments and treasured heirlooms.