The Market For Antiquities

The Market For Antiquities

Within the last few years the market for antiquities has settled into a fairly steady, predictable pattern (See Graph 1: Revenue gained in antiquities sales 1987 - 1998. This graph shows that income from sales is steady at approximately £500,000 per sale with three years where there are wild fluctuations in the market). Antiquities are traded in a number of categories from 'Souvenirs of the Grand Tour,' 46 which places them in a category of items that have been in the United Kingdom since the eighteenth century, 47 to unprovenanced, unrecorded and recently excavated objects.

The most interesting issue relating to the antiquities market is that of provenance. Without provenance, as Dr. Ian Stead 48 says,

'Antiquities may be admired for their beauty and for the craftsmanship of their creators, but they are of very limited value unless we know where they were found (provenance) and, ideally, what was found with them (context).' 49

The value that he mentions is the academic worth of an antiquity. Once a scholar has recorded an object, preferably excavating it from the ground it lies in, he can place this object in relation to the archaeological site and build up an image of the life to which the property was a part. The best provenance has documentary evidence of past owners which hopefully includes the location of where the item was discovered, for example, 'property of Mr. Jones, found in the Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo.' This gives you the previous owner, location, era and context of the antiquity for sale and gives it a pedigree which would make it far more valuable than an unprovenanced piece.

However, some collectors, 50 dealers 51 and auction houses 52 do not see the need for provenancing the items they posses or sell and therefore we see a divide forming between the academic and commercial value of antiquities. This results in the underlying issue surrounding the illicit trade of antiquities - a need to prove the origin of an object and the fight between recording history or making a profit from it.

Sampling The Current Market

When investigating the market of antiquities I decided that it would be best to take a sample of data from an important auction house and use that as a basis to describe the market. I arranged with Lynda McLeod 53 of Christie's, King Street (after contact with Sotheby's proved problematic) to visit the archives and obtain price information for a ten year period, therefore, getting to understand the top end of the market. Christie's hold two antiquities sales a year and we tried to use the information from the second sale of 'Fine Antiquities' for each year.

We gathered together sale reports from 1987 - 1998 and then I processed the information into manageable statistics (Table 1: Sale Statistics 1987 - 1998. Shows the spread of information that could be gleaned from post-sale results and the catalogues themselves). I was especially interested in how much was sold, what value was realised at each sale and what remained unsold or was withdrawn - examining the reason for some withdrawals. This information will show the value of antiquities and hopefully prove that there is a prolific market for the objects.

Table 1: Sale Statistics

Year Lots in Sale Revenue
(£ Sterling)
Not Sold or Withdrawn

















1991 212 660,650 54
1992 216 541,110 74
1993 208 212,700 80
1994 242 565,150 103
1995 243 350,310 120
1996 191 530,600 96
1997 169 514,680 76
1998 407 614,278 147
Total: 3,018 7,632,963 741 (24.55%)

Many lots within each sale did not have associated provenance (See Table 2: Breakdown of Items in Sale ANT-8126. Showing the number of lots catalogued with or without provenance - the ownership history of an item), however, most of the finest works were recorded - even if they had only been linked to a famous collection, dealer or family. The debate of how much provenance an auction house will attribute to a piece is dependent upon the value of the object offered for sale, but any provenance will enhance the value of an antiquity (or indeed any item that is for sale).

On average, the total sale revenue for antiquities per year (Christie's UK) will be between £1,000,000 - £3,000,000, with Christie's getting 15% buyers commission and between 5% and 10% sellers commission on each lot. This figure may seem quite small, especially when compared with the multi-million pound art market, but on average every item sold will make over £1,000 (though there are many well under this value, items can go for as little as £25 - £50) which means that better quality antiquities are pushed beyond the level of the average wage-earner. 54 I suggest that although the market has great public appeal, good quality antiquities will take their time to sell, with specialist dealers and collectors forming the nucleus of the purchasers.

Examining the statistics, (Table 1: Sale Statistic) we can see that there is a very high 'not sold' rate, especially in the last six years. This means that recently we have become more wary buyers, either looking for better quality goods or not trusting items that are un-provenanced. The market place is also unsettled due to recession and problems within the European Community, such as high un-employment and the introduction of the Euro, which has prevented confident spending. The figures show a very balanced spread of values achieved for the antiquities sold, approximately 200 lots will achieve £500,000. This balance means that antiquities are good for investment and associations (such as the British Rail Pension Fund), which use antiquities as a financial commodity.

A Question of Provenance

I examined the last antiquities sale held by Christie's in 1998 to see just how many items were sold without provenance (by which I mean the catalogue did not state that an item had (a) ownership provenance, (b) been exhibited, (c) was compared to, (d) had been published in or (e) was from the property of a private collector). Only 140 items were within my bounds of 'provenance' at sale ANT-8126 (See Table 2: Status of Items in Sale) meaning that 2/3 of the antiquities were without provenance.

Table 2: Status of Items in Sale ANT-8126, September 1998

Status in Sale: No Provenance Provenanced Exhibited Published Compared Collector's








Not Sold











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Whilst thinking about a reason behind this, I did receive an interesting comment in response to my questionnaire, 55 on the legality of antiquities at auction, which stated that:

'A large % of antiquities are legally in this country having come from the "Grand Tour" period. The majority of antiquities are low value items... the problem exists at the rarer, high value end of the market...' 56

If items have come from the Grand Tour then they are likely to have provenance going back to the original collector, (as the Castle Ashby vase had, see above) but even this can be lost if the property has changed hands several times during its history. However, he comments that problems only exist at the higher end of the antiquities market and here I must disagree. From my own personal experience, low value antiquities are more likely to be without provenance and are ignored as being illicit articles because they do not have 'headline-catching' monetary values. Auction houses and dealers do not concern themselves with anyone but the previous owner of the object or - if it will enhance the value - a link with an important collection, collector or location. 57

These figures raise another argument in the defence of unprovenanced antiquities - the difficulty in tracing the ownership history beyond the present owner of an object. If an antiquity has come from a deceased estate then the chances of finding somebody who may remember where the object came from are low. Similarly, a dealer or an auction house are unlikely to reveal the source of an object in order to maintain client confidentiality. Therefore, a researcher is presented with a major obstacle in following the provenance of an object.

I. M. Stead, writes about the provenance of the Charlbury Helmet (Watney Collection), acquired by the British Museum, stating that:

'It was not a recent illegal import because it had been in the family since 1918, so it could be bought and sold quite legally in the antiquities market. The British Museum purchased it.' 58

This comment is strange, particularly because Dr. Stead had just finished writing about the importance of provenance and the need to establish a legal owner. I believe that many institutions that acquired objects before the 1972 ratification of the UNESCO Convention 59 feel they are legalised, even if they had been illegally excavated in the past. The British Museum has a policy towards such objects which:

'...deplores the deliberate removal of ancient artefacts from British soil... especially when the context of those artefacts is thereby left unrecorded and severely damaged. However, although the unauthorised excavation of such material... is illegal and should never be condoned, much of what is discovered elsewhere has been bought to light lawfully; persons in possession of it often have a legal title to dispose of it as they think fit. In these circumstances, the Museum has an overriding duty to acquire such finds as it considers appropriate to the national collection.' 60

I agree with the purchase of antiquities without provenance, but only if they are articles that have been in this country since before the 1970 UNESCO agreement. 61 I can understand the difficulty in establishing the provenance of an item that has been circulated within the market for nearly thirty years and feel that there should be a 'cut-off' point for archaeologists and dealers to work around. If an item has not been recorded, or is traded without provenance, after this date then it should be considered 'guilty, until proven innocent,' 62 but items before this date, unless of great national importance, should be recorded as best they can and then allowed to be freely traded.

Examining the Flow of The Market

A Brief History

Antiquities have been popular with British collectors at least from the Elizabethan Era 63 and ever since auction houses were properly established in the 18th century they have dealt in antiquities. Sotheby's, established 1744, originally auctioned books, coins and antiquities whilst their rival, Mr. Christie dealt mainly in Old Master paintings and drawings. The antiquities market has always been steady, benefiting from: collections of wealthy travellers (for example, Lord Elgin); past periods of war (under Napoleon a great influx of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities into came Europe, especially after the Nile Campaign of 1795); major archaeological discoveries (Herculanaeum, Pompeii and the tomb of Tutankhamen); the rise of the metal detectorist and the excitement of finding lost 'treasure' - as was perfectly caricatured in a recent National Lottery television advertisement. 64

Antiquities seem to have a universal appeal and the most interesting will have high profile exposure, for example the Elgin Marbles - now a constant source of controversy and national pride (although the Egyptian government has all but abandoned their quest for the return of the Marbles 65 some factions still devote much time towards seeking their return 66). The element of the unknown and the mysterious also pervade antiquities, especially with the secrecy surrounding access to the dead sea scrolls 67 or the unusual deaths of archaeologists following the finding of Tutankhamen's Tomb, 68 all serve to feed interest in antiquities and therefore ensure a continuing market appeal.

The 1970's saw great investment and a rise in concern for the preservation of cultural history. An excellent example of the investment in antiquities was the purchases of the British Rail Pension Fund (hereafter BRPF). In the 1970's they formed a collection of antique glass which recently sold at Sotheby's for over £4,000,000 including premium. 69 There were only 33 lots in the sale, but they were all of the highest quality with well recorded provenance and therefore were eagerly snatched up by collectors wanting the best of the best.

The 1970 UNESCO convention on the protection of Cultural Property was another important occurrence for antiquities, bringing a form of control to the growing sales of illicitly recovered objects that arose to meet the needs of a hungry market. The convention will be discussed in the section on law.

1987 - 1998 : Explaining the Data

The number of lots sold at each auction (Table 1: Sale Statistics) gives an indication of a successful or unsuccessful year. For example, 1988, 1990 and 1998 were well stocked sales, but more lots do not imply high revenue. Looking at the revenue gained from each sale and comparing this to the average value of a single lot in each year we can see that both 1988 and 1990 had high revenue, but 1998 did not see as much income. On average, both 1998 and 1990 were good years, (Table 3: Average Value Of Each Lot 1987 - 1998 and Graph 2: Average Value Of Each Lot) but although 1998 had a high volume of objects for sale, they did not have an average high value. This shows that the market was stronger in the early 1990's than it is today. Sotheby's, who were the biggest antiquities auctioneers, no longer auction antiquities in the UK and this shows that the market is moving away from England and towards New York (where the major auction houses have important salesrooms).

1993 was a low yield year, not only in terms of the amount of lots sold, but also in the revenue gained from the sale. By looking at the results displayed in graph 2 and table 3 we can see just how low this was in comparison to other years. This was because 1993 was the beginning of a recovery from recession and therefore people were still preserving their wealth, waiting until the market stabilised again. 70

Table 3: Average Value Of Each Lot 1987 - 1998

Year Average (£)








1991 3,116.27














Average (£)

Alternatively, in 1988 / 1989 the art and antiques market was, in general, enjoying a boom period 71 and this is reflected in the antiquities market. We can see that in 1995 there was a drastic drop in the value of antiquities, which was most likely due to the revelations of Peter Watson through his Channel 4 television program, 'Sale of the Centuries.' 72 However this also sparked off further interest in antiquities by making them a very public commodity and therefore the market rises again for the next two years. Last year (1998) the market seems to have been flooded with more antiquities than usual as more people 'jump on the bandwagon' hoping to cash in on the boom period - as will happen in any other market. This lowers the value of the goods available because there are more examples of antiquity on offer and therefore purchasers can be more selective in what they wish to buy.


We have an 'in-between' period where the quality of goods are high, but the lots are more numerous, which leads to selective purchasing and a reflection on the academic value as well as a monetary value of antiquities. The issue of provenance in auction sales becomes more important because it is a method for sorting out a good quality lot from the wide variety on offer. However, the auction house is in a precarious position as to the liability of how much they should research the provenance of an object. This could be a method of closing the dispute between academics and merchants through requiring research to be carried out on an object to increase its saleability. This benefits the auctioneer because he pleases his client with a better value on his object and ensures that an academic has the best chance to record an object before it is sold on. There will always be a monetary level where it becomes nonviable for research to be carried out on an object and therefore the dispute arises over where the cut-off point should be and this may not please academics because they wish to see everything properly recorded.

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(C) 1999 Andrew Cranwell. Last Revised 31 / 05 / 1999