HELPFUL HINTS ON COLLECTING ANCIENT ART (FOR FUN AND PROFIT)
By Stephen F. Beiner
I was first introduced to collecting antiquities by the great Israeli soldier and statesman, Moshe Dayan, with whom I was privileged to spend many weekends in the late 1970s. At his home in Zahala, in the outskirts of Tel Aviv, I would urge him to tell me of his meetings with Golda Meir, or with his chief of staff Yitzchak Rabin, or with the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He would instead lovingly hold up an Amarna terracotta jug from the time of Moses that he had just purchased from an Arab antiquities dealer in the old city of Jerusalem. Later, I would watch him painstakingly repair a Chalcolithic urn he found in the Golan Heights that was over six thousand years old. As each hour passed and he scraped and polished and mended, I saw the weariness and stress disappear from his face, as he lovingly restored the treasured artifact to its ancient glory. I will always remember those precious days I spent with Dayan; I learned from him the pure joy derived from finding, handling, researching and owning ancient art.
My first purchase as a collector came many years later. My wife Judith and I sought out Robert Deutsch, dealer, author, and scholar, in his gallery hidden in one of the winding alleys in Old Jaffa. Robert graciously spent many hours with us, describing the periods of Biblical archeology and showing us artifacts from each. When he put a Middle Bronze high-handled terracotta cup in my hand and explained that it was from the time of Abraham, I was visibly moved. I could actually own a four thousand year old vessel, dating back to the foundations of my faith! To be fair, before selling us "Abraham's cup," Robert warned us that if we made the purchase, we were well on our way to becoming "addicted." We did buy the cup (and still treasure it to this day) and, as predicted, we have become totally absorbed in collecting ancient art. That first purchase has led to hundreds of others – but more importantly, it has literally changed our lives – giving to my wife Judith and me many years of unparalleled excitement and pleasure.
I hope to share with you the joys of collecting ancient art. In close to twenty years of collecting, I have learned useful information and helpful hints that I offer as assistance as you purchase artifacts "for fun and profit," and to assure that acquiring a work of art will be a genuinely enjoyable and rewarding experience for you.
The excitement begins with looking for exactly the right piece, at the right price. For every antiquity that we purchase, we probably look at and reject several hundred. We have become explorers – the art dealers in New York, London, Jerusalem and Paris our territory – searching for that hidden treasure that others have not recognized or appreciated. Recently in London, we met a Persian antiquities dealer who showed us glazed ceramic bowls from Nishapur (a cultural capital of 9th century Persia) that his father and grandfather (also dealers in ancient art) carried with them when they left Iran. What a discovery – a new source of treasures to explore, cull and utilize. "The search" has led Judith and me to travel around the world, meeting wonderfully exciting and knowledgeable people, who are eager to share their stories and their prized possession with us. Each new trip fills us with great expectations of what hidden treasures (and exciting new friends) we may discover and make our own.
And then comes the moment when we identify an artifact we wish to purchase. And the negotiations that follow to make it affordable. And the research to authenticate it. And finally -- it is ours! I admire people who visit great museums and are totally satisfied purchasing a postcard depicting some great work of art, people who truly do not covet ownership. I am not one of them. Walking through our home or gallery, and being surrounded by "our" antiquities, gives me incredible joy! A postcard simply will not suffice.
As a student, I was never very motivated to study history. But when I handle (especially when I purchase) a piece of ancient art, I immediately desire to know more about the period in which it was made and the culture that produced it. When I bought a beautifully painted goblet and was informed that it was from the time of Omri, I ran, not walked, to my Bible to learn more about Ahab and Jezebel, and the prophet Elijah, who reined at the time my goblet was made. Now they no longer were ethereal, mystical, figures; I was holding in my hands a piece of pottery that they too may have encountered. Recently we purchased an exquisite Etruscan holmos (used by the ancient Greeks to serve food at a banquet); within minutes Judith had identified through her internet research a picture of the holmos on display in the Louvre and one that had been shown in the Israel Museum. What a thrill to confirm that our new purchase was a museum-quality antiquity of superb beauty.
Our purchases have led us to read and re-read the Bible, and to purchase volumes of catalogs, and books on history, art and archeology. Besides giving us the simple joy of owning a beautiful piece of art, our artifacts have opened for us an incredible world of knowledge, which enormously enhances our appreciation of the objects that surround us.
What to Purchase.
The first rule is that you must love the piece as an object of art. Before you value its age, its provenance, its rarity, or its historic importance, it must "speak to you" as a thing of beauty. Some say purchasing art is a little like falling in love. If it gives you great pleasure in its singular loveliness, the joy you derive from the piece will only grow as you learn more about it and the culture that produced it. But collecting art, including and maybe especially ancient art, is foremost a visceral reaction to an object for its inherent beauty. From there, it only gets better.
Ancient art is remarkably affordable. I often see the surprise on a client's face when she learns that the twenty-five hundred year old Greek Krater that she has been admiring with incredible provenance is far less expensive than many pieces of contemporary art. When I made my first purchase, my friend and mentor, Robert Deutsch, gave me very sage advice that has guided all of my purchasing and that I pass on to you: buy the very best piece that your budget will allow. For future appreciation and for your future enjoyment, it is far better to buy one very good antiquity for $5,000, than ten authentic, but pedestrian artifacts for $500 each. The fine antiquity will only get better (and more valuable) with passing years. A mediocre piece of art will always be no more than that.
Know Your Dealer.
The second most important rule: know the dealer from whom you are purchasing. Only purchase antiquities (or any art) from a dealer whom you trust, and who has a reputation for his/her knowledge and integrity, and who will unconditionally stand behind the piece of art that you are purchasing. Of course, the dealer’s guaranty is only as good as the dealer is, i.e. will he/she still be in the community in five or ten year for you to turn to with any concerns you may have? The leading auction houses will only guaranty your purchase for sixty days; that is understandable since after that time they turn the purchase price you paid over to the consigner/seller. When buying from a reputable dealer, you should insist on nothing less than a lifetime guaranty of authenticity. And many dealers will allow you to "trade up" your purchase in the future toward a more valuable piece as your tastes ( and your budget) change. Your dealer should also assure you that the piece of ancient art that you are purchasing had been imported into the United States legally and is not in violation of the laws enacted by foreign countries to discourage looting of their patrimony, the articles of their national history. Many gallery owners will allow trusted clients to bring a piece to their home for a short period, to get "a feel" of it in their own surroundings.
Remember that "just looking" is perfectly acceptable in an art gallery. The best dealers have a genuine and profound passion for the art they sell; they enjoy nothing more than to share their love and knowledge with people who share their interest. So don’t hesitate to engage a dealer in conversation about a work of art that you admire; ask many questions.
Making good use of your dealer’s expertise. An experienced dealer can be of invaluable assistance in helping you to purchase, sell, donate or bequeath your pieces of art. You should be able to rely on your dealer’s experience and advice regarding the purchase of an antiquity or helping you to develop a strategy and focus for the formation of a collection.
My parents taught me was that "it is better to give than receive." Judith and I have derived enormous pleasure watching hundreds of people admire and marvel at the artifacts that we have donated to various houses of worship, libraries, and charitable organizations. Dealers routinely advise their clients about lending and donating art.
As an estate-planning attorney, I should also point out that a good dealer can help a collector and his/her executors to develop a strategy to obtain the best price if a collection is to be sold, or to assist in dividing the art collection fairly among several beneficiaries.
I also remember my parents telling me that residential real estate was the best investment because you could live in and enjoy your home while it was appreciating. So it is with ancient art; I look at and experience great joy each day from the exquisite and rare artifacts that surround me in my home, law office and gallery, while these objects are appreciating in value.
My financial advisor tells me that during the last seventy-five years, the equity market has risen 11% per year on average. But equity investors, other than enjoying the profit from their investment, derive little pleasure from looking at their stock certificates. Perhaps that is why my financial advisor has also filled his home and his office with a collection of ancient art; it certainly provides a great opportunity to diversify your investment portfolio.
I spend a great deal of time perusing antiquities sales catalogs of ten and even twenty years ago and am often astonished at how the prices for ancient art have continuously and sometimes dramatically risen. Like real estate, "they" are not making any more of it. And as countries continue to enact laws to protect their patrimony (the artifacts of their heritage), the truly good pieces with unquestioned provenance can be expected to continue to appreciate handily.
Every prudent investor should consider the potential "liquidity" of any investment : If I had to, for whatever reason, could these items readily be sold and turned into cash? It is an important consideration to know that there is a vibrant and readily accessible international market for good antiquities; it may take several months to identify a buyer who will purchase your ancient art, but you can rest assured that you will be able to do so.
The joys of collecting ancient art. I hope that collecting ancient art will be for you, as it has been for many years for Judith and me, a wonder-filled joint adventure for two like-minded people and a continuing source of great enjoyment, excitement, pride, fun, and profit.
STEPHEN F. BEINER is a practicing attorney in Boca Raton. Together with his wife, Dr. Judith Beiner, he owns the GRIFFIN GALLERY OF ANCIENT ART, Gallery Center, Boca Raton, Florida.