In Egyptian Antiquities Market, Cat Statues Command a Premium

(Bloomberg) -- Martin Clist, the director of London’s Charles Ede Gallery, is bringing a 3,400-year-old Egyptian “offering table” to Tefaf New York Spring, an art and antiquities fair that opens next week in New York. 

The limestone slab’s delicately carved hieroglyphs will share floor space with other dealers’ vintage Cartier necklaces, 19th century carvings from the Ivory Coast, and cubist paintings.

Unlike those other objects, though, the slab’s $110,000 price is the product of a unique and fairly subjective combination of factors specific to the antiquities market. 

“With a Picasso, you can say, ‘It’s this period, it’s that subject, it’s this size,’ and you can give a price range,” says David Ghezelbash, whose Paris gallery is bringing a $4.5 million, 18th dynasty granite head of the goddess Sekhmet to its booth at Tefaf. “With antiquities, it’s a much wider range of price, depending on how artistic the piece is.”

In Egyptian Antiquities Market, Cat Statues Command a Premium

Prices for Egyptian antiquities are determined by a few firm criteria, including authenticity, provenance, condition, and material. (Hardstone objects are priced differently than items made of bronze.) 

Beyond that, there’s a certain alchemy you won’t find in any realm of the fine art market.

“People have this idea that all works of art from the ancient world should be priced in the millions,” says Clist. “But of course, one has to work within commercial parameters of our world.”

This ambiguity cuts both ways. Because the market for Egyptian artifacts is much smaller than, say, the market for 20th century drawings, far fewer people compete to buy whatever object comes up for sale. As a result, buyers can get real bargains.

In Egyptian Antiquities Market, Cat Statues Command a Premium

“That’s the good thing about antiquities in general,” says Ghezelbash. “You can buy very fine Egyptian amulets, which were protective artifacts that were put in mummies, for a couple thousand dollars.” Ten thousand dollars, he says, gets you “a masterpiece of an amulet.” 

The flip side is that because of the narrowness of the field, newcomers often have to put their trust in dealers, rather than looking to an established market of prior public sales. Still, even without an expert’s help, there are a few ways newcomers to the field can get a rough idea of an object’s value.

Provenance

In 1970, Unesco passed a resolution that banned the sale of countries’ cultural property “specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science.” Egypt ratified it in 1983.  

“The pre-1983 date is vital,” says Clist. “Before that, Egypt had a legal market for antiquities, and in fact the museum and commercial markets were closely allied at this time.”

In Egyptian Antiquities Market, Cat Statues Command a Premium

If an artifact doesn’t have provenance that dates it prior to 1983, a buyer ought to beware. “I would advise anyone interested in buying to get original documents proving provenance,” says Max Bernheimer, the international head of antiquities at Christie’s, which is putting on an antiquities auction next week in New York. “Otherwise, when you go to sell it, it’s practically valueless without that paperwork.” On the open market, it be can rash to buy anything illicit.

The farther back in time a provenance goes, the better. As with all art, an object that was once owned by a collector noted for erudition or taste can acquire some of it. Martine-Marie-Pol de Béhague, for instance, was a famed collector. An auction of her antiquities was held by Sotheby’s Monaco in 1987, and “everything that was touched by her has a markup,” says Ghezelbash. “She had amazing taste.”

Material and Condition

The majority of Egyptian artifacts will be made from stone or bronze. Limestone is a soft stone, which means that it was easier to carve but is more prone to wear. “If it’s worn away, it won’t be worth so much,” says Clist. “If our offering table was a harder stone—really, really crisp—it could be worth three or four times what we’re asking, because material, and an object’s state of preservation, will make a difference.”

In Egyptian Antiquities Market, Cat Statues Command a Premium

That, Ghezelbash says, is why he feels emboldened to ask $4.5 million for his granite head of Sekhmet. “It’s the high end of the market,” he explains, “because it’s a hard stone with great provenance and aesthetic appeal.”

Subject Matter

Some objects are rarer than others. “If you’re talking about a run-of-the-mill shabti figure [a funerary figurine], those exist in high numbers and haven’t changed in value at all,” Bernheimer says. But even within those ubiquitous objects—scarabs are another—exceptions can be found. “The average one is half-an-inch long, but we have one in our April sale that’s more like three inches long, and it’s royal, and that makes it far more interesting,” he says.

In Egyptian Antiquities Market, Cat Statues Command a Premium

The only instance where an object’s subject matter can totally change its value is when appeal extends beyond a traditional collecting base—such as with cat figurines.

“We sold a very fine Egyptian bronze cat for several million dollars,” Bernheimer says. “Here, you had something that sold for more money than other bronzes of a similar size, because there are more people who collect cat figures than, say, figures of the god Osiris.”

The Market

Like all narrow markets, fortunes rise and fall based on the activity of a tiny group of collectors. For years, one of the biggest players was the late Sheikh Saud bin Muhammed Al Thani, a Qatari prince “who was a volatile presence in the market, because when he saw something and wanted it, he would just go for it,” Clist says. “He would just bid, bid, bid, which made whole areas of the Egyptian market very expensive.”

As a result, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future results, Clist says. “If you’re looking at things over the past two decades that were going up to auction of a very high quality, there’s a high likelihood that [Al Thani] was bidding on them and pushing prices up. Now the volatility of the market is calming down, because there isn’t someone like that who’s out there with an almost impossible passion for buying Egyptian antiquities.”

In Egyptian Antiquities Market, Cat Statues Command a Premium

There are objects in the sale at Christie’s that carry estimates of a few thousand dollars, “and there are wonderful things that can be had for $25,000,” Bernheimer says. 

For from $50,000 to $100,000, “you can buy a beautiful relief,” says Ghezelbash, “or a masterpiece of bronze.” 

He’s bringing a relief from the sixth dynasty, with provenance going back to 1955, which carries a price of $100,000. “I also have a spectacular bronze, which I’m asking $140,000 for. It’s a human body with the head of a cat.”

Regardless of the object, dealers say, don’t buy antiquities for investment purposes. Generally, Clist says, “everything you buy will increase in value, but don’t expect it to increase violently in a short period.” If it appreciates, he continues, that’s good. “But buy it for your own enjoyment.”

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