Oct 18, 2008

Lifestyle - Antiquities reveal surprising strength at lower end of market

Souren Melikian

LONDON: Certain sales stand out as landmarks by unexpectedly shedding new light on the forces that truly drive the art market. A daylong auction of antiquities at Bonhams this week was one of those enlightening events.

What made it remarkable was the unremarkable character of the goods on offer. This is not meant as a snide comment about Bonhams, the modest but energetic third runner on the international auction arena, far behind Sotheby's and Christie's. Au contraire. Bonhams is working hard to hold its ground in the middle and lower levels of the market by making itself as attractive as possible.

In its revamped New Bond street premises, its displays can be as elegant as those at the big two and strolling in, you are rarely met with that touch of supercilious stiffness occasionally noticeable in the larger auction houses. On Wednesday, James Knight, the auctioneer who conducted most of the sale, brilliantly practiced the delicate art of trying to get good prices for the vendor without giving the impression of pressing bidders artificially, and in the process, probably brought his own contribution to the outcome of the auction.

But, ultimately, it is the buyer's willingness to pay for art that makes or breaks an auction. On a day when bleak forecasts were made afresh about the economic prospects of Britain, the public mood was not exactly rosy and the goods on offer had little about them that was likely to cheer up those possessed with the art collector's urge.

The sculpture, vessels, and jewelry consigned to the morning session made up a mix of Egyptian, Near Eastern, Greek and Roman art at the lowest level. Many pieces were poorly preserved, and few were redeemed by some rare feature.

In the afternoon, a comparable assemblage, if more closely focused on Ancient Greece and Rome, was presented under the grand heading "The Geddes Collection."

A terse notice in the catalogue, however flattering the tone, revealed that Graham Geddes was an Australian dealer who started in the 1960s. It did not specify that the objects consigned for sale were those that had remained unsold, but this is how any experienced market hand with the slightest inclination to cynicism would have read the said biographical information. In the current climate, disaster seemed bound to strike. Yet, it did not.

True, a number of objects remained unwanted. In the morning, 11 of the first 30 pieces that came up failed to sell, by my count. But most of these would be unsaleable under pretty much any circumstances.

A pinkish terracotta offering tray, as undistinguished in shape as in the rendition of the offerings molded on it, was never going to stimulate bidders into coughing up £1,000 to £1,500, or $1,750 to $2,625, plus the 20 percent sale charge. On the other hand, the first lot to come up, an Egyptian Pre-Dynastic ovoid jar of the fourth millennium B.C., proved attractive to the modern eye with its deep red burnished sides turning to black in the uppermost area. Unfortunately, the erstwhile bloom of its fine burnish is gone, and not long ago that would have proved a handicap. No longer. Pre-Dynastic vases taken out of Egypt by the hundreds when the commercial looting of tombs was an accepted fact of life are now rare. Lot 1 sold well, for £3,120.

The rarification factor again and again helped objects which in earlier days of abundance would not have inspired great enthusiasm. A limestone relief fragment of the Middle Kingdom carved 4,000 years ago, with a procession of attendants carrying offerings, made £7,200, despite nasty dirt incrustations. A series of gaudy blue-glazed frit figures of the "Shabti" type without any artistic quality sold like hotcakes, because Geddes had been clever enough to have their hieroglyphs read by scholars and these named the characters. Good prices were paid, ranging from £1,200 to £3,120.

An outburst of enthusiasm was even prompted by the appearance of a small but dazzling profile carved out of indurated limestone, which Bonhams dated "circa 1550-1070 BC." It was once inlaid into furniture. At £26,400, an astronomical price for what it is, the profile more than tripled the estimate.

But what made the sale most significant was the ease with which small pleasing pieces of no particular merit found takers. The squatting bronze figure of Ma'at, the deity of Truth, 10.5 centimeters, or 4 ¼ inches, high was extraordinarily expensive at £6,600, and a tiny seated baboon cast in bronze filled with lead to serve as a weight was, in proportion, equally dear at £2,980 - the catalogue breezily noted that the figure, 3.8 centimeters high, was "damaged."

The interest taken in modest pieces - some good but not outstanding, others either downright mediocre or in desperately poor condition - was maintained when it came to Greek and Roman art. It was astonishing to see the wreck of a once glorious Attic vase painted with black figures around 530-510 B.C., selling for £7,800. Huge chunks are missing, hence the "heavy restoration and repainting" noted by Bonhams. Collectors clearly driven by purely aesthetic desire went after pieces such as the graceful Greek bronze figure of a draped woman walking. The headless statue, which is missing both arms, went up to £8,400.

Later, a very large Roman marble capital of the Corinthian order carved in the second century rose to £24,000. The quality is excellent and it can be shown to have been in Britain long before 1970, the cutoff date after which possession of antiquities without an export license from the country of origin is increasingly perceived to be a high risk. But it is not the kind of object that sells easily, given its unwieldy size.

Damaged sculptures of moderate appeal did well. A Roman marble torso of a Venus, missing its head and most of its arms, with legs chopped above the knees, realized a steep £33,600. While superbly carved, this fragment of the first century cannot be claimed to be "important."

The high failure rate, which hit 43 percent of the items, might suggest to outsiders unfamiliar with the art that the antiquities market was in dire straits. Actually, it was exclusively due to objects that would be virtually unsaleable under any circumstances. In truth, the morning session was a commercial success disguised by the large number of utter duds.

That left a big question mark hovering over the fate of "The Geddes Collection" due to appear in the afternoon. If the market was ever so slightly reticent, objects that had long remained in the dealer's stock despite widespread exposure - several had been included in museum shows in Australia - were in danger of being spurned en masse. This did not happen. The session went as well it could ever have, given what was on offer.

Of the first 10 Greek vases that came on the block, six found takers, in some cases miraculously so. It takes the current dearth of vases from the late sixth century B.C. for a black figure amphora "repaired and restored" to be saved by a lone bidder willing to cough up £30,000. The success of the black figure psykter (a vessel for cooling wine, looking like an amphora standing upside down) of the early fifth century B.C. that followed was equally amazing. "Repaired with some restoration and repainting," as Bonhams put it in a tactful understatement, it managed to bring a thumping £40,800.

More pieces pulled through against the odds at prices defying common sense.

The marble head of a foppish young man, brutish and smug, carved as the corner ornament of a sarcophagus lid which Bonhams dated "circa 2nd century" could not have gone for much more than the £24,000 it cost on Wednesday, and the £54,000 paid for an awkwardly broken marble relief "circa 2nd century," in which both characters are missing their heads and legs, is astonishing.

The Bonhams sale demonstrated to the delighted surprise of professionals that the eagerness to own antiquities is, for now, strong enough to beat financial worries, even at the lowest quality level. It was highly significant because this is where any market is most likely to suffer when a recession looms. In the art market, human emotions apparently remain stronger than rational calculations

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