Really old money

October 23, 2008

Really old money
The new darlings of the art market are ancient artifacts. It’s a wild, high-stakes game with a shady past. Playing it could make you rich – or get you arrested.
By Nadira A. Hira, writer

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Hicham and Ali Aboutaam: Brothers Hicham (right) and Ali Aboutaam are among a new wave of dealers trying to rid the antiquities trade of some of its Stygianl reputation.Hicham and Ali Aboutaam: Brothers Hicham (right) and Ali Aboutaam are among a new wave of dealers trying to rid the antiquities trade of some of its Stygianl reputation.

(Fortune Magazine) — The antiquities trade has been making headlines, and they are weird ones: “Eulogy for the Euphronius Krater.” (What in the world is a “krater”?) “Museum to Show Off Fake Egyptian Sculptures.” (That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?) “Antiquities Dealer Gets Prison Time.” (A nice old man with a pince-nez comes to mind, dragged off to the clink for some tragicomical offense, no doubt.)

Read beyond the headlines, though, and it becomes clear that something large is going on. The dealer convicted in 2002 is none other than Frederick Schultz, former head of a major professional group in the antiquities field and once an advisor to President Clinton on international arts policy. He was convicted of conspiring to smuggle newly found Egyptian relics to the U.S. by passing them off as tourist junk.

As for the actual fake sculptures, so overheated has this segment of the art market become that even counterfeits are now noteworthy. The faux Egypt pieces are works identified in the renowned Egyptian collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

What the museum had thought were important Coptic (Egyptian Christian) and pagan sculptures turned out, on close examination, to be sophisticated forgeries, probably from the 20th century. The museum has announced it will include them in an exhibition next year (rather than the more standard approach – hiding them in shame and disgrace).

And the Euphronios krater? Well, that’s an 18-inch-tall wine-mixing vessel signed by famed Greek artist Euphronios – and a case that goes right to the heart of the matter. It used to reside in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which bought it in 1972.

Italian authorities, claiming that it had been illegally excavated and exported, demanded that the museum return it to Italy. (Although the krater is of Greek cultural origin, it was found in Italy, part of an ancient Etruscan collection of ancient Greek art.) This year the Met bowed to international pressure and sent the krater back home, inspiring eulogies from American admirers.

The return of the krater was a watershed: It told the world that an international consensus had finally and firmly taken hold on the rules for ownership of ancient artifacts. The consensus had been a long time coming – it grew out of a 1970 Unesco declaration seeking to impose some kind of order on the murky, often disputatious business of trading antiquities and authenticating their origin. And it had an extraordinary consequence: The market took off like Ben-Hur.

So just as New York was preparing to bid goodbye to the krater, the following headline appeared on Dec. 6, 2007, in the New York Times: “Tiny Lioness Commands Many Millions.” A 5,000-year-old, 3 1/4-inch limestone figure from the Mesopotamian region of Elam – known as the Guennol lioness – went to auction after almost 60 years on loan to the Brooklyn Museum. And if the presale estimate of $14 million to $18 million had people talking, the sale price of $57.2 million left them speechless.

Just six months before, Sotheby’s had sold a three-foot first-century bronze statue called “Artemis and the Stag” – now on loan to the Met from an unnamed owner – for a then-staggering $28.6 million, a record-setting auction price for both antiquities and sculpture at the time. But the Guennol lioness, with her pristine provenance (or origin documentation) and record-annihilating pricetag, provided proof that a “new” antiquities industry had emerged from the scandals of the recent past.

Michael Steinhardt is getting misty. “A little part of my life is built around ancient art,” he says, something that sounds almost funny considering the contents of his Manhattan office: The two computer monitors on his desk do confirm that he is a hedge fund guru, but just about every other surface and vista in the large corner room feature Judaica and ancient art – his true love.

“If you see a wonderful archaic Greek marble object in a museum, it’s not only that it’s beautiful, but what comes to your mind is the fact that it’s 2,600 or so years old, and it was done by a human being at that time who you have such a limited ability to grasp – and yet you have this enormous ability to grasp,” Steinhardt says.

He’s been collecting for more than 20 years, amassing what is probably one of the larger private American collections, and was moved to create it partly out of the impulse to do something more “ennobling” with his fortune than buy a “private jet or Picasso.”

Ancient art presented a challenge: Antiquities “require more of yourself to be a good collector,” says the autodidact. “You see an Andy Warhol – well, thank you very much. Maybe there’s something to know and maybe there’s a depth that totally escapes me, but I don’t think you can collect fifth-century Greek material or collect Greek pots without understanding a good deal more.”

Steinhardt conducts a walking tour of his office, pointing out a mockup of a Roman stela he’s just bought depicting a Greek killing an Amazon, a scene he says touched him with its Holocaust echoes. But there’s one story about his collection that he won’t tell: the time U.S. customs agents entered his Manhattan home, confiscated a Sicilian phiale (that’s a bowl) valued at more than $1 million, and sent it back to Italy, all at the request of that country’s authorities.

The case made major headlines, particularly because it underscored the U.S. government’s willingness to enforce a foreign government’s cultural patrimony – i.e., national heritage – laws in the antiquities arena. Steinhardt is right: You do have to know a good deal to be a successful antiquities collector, not just to spot value but to avoid being publicly embarrassed, accused of theft, or forced to bid farewell to an artifact you’ve acquired (and even the money you’ve spent on it).

That’s because what ultimately catapulted antiquities from relative commercial obscurity to the art world’s center stage was the codification of provenance and the rules of national ownership. This began with the Unesco declaration in 1970, formally called the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership and Cultural Property.

As one country after another has ratified the convention, it has become something like international law. And many governments have gone further, enacting measures that make any new finds within their borders property of the state. The upshot is this: No newly excavated antiquities will be hitting the market, so any piece with good papers – showing it came out of the ground before the convention was established in 1970 or was legally exported after that – automatically skyrockets in value.

But owning an antiquity isn’t quite the straightforward affair that picking up the odd piece of Pop Art or animal in formaldehyde might be. Aside from the legal matters – finding a reputable dealer, confirming provenance, generally avoiding search and seizure – there are the more nuanced ethical questions. Many archaeologists say any antiquities trade, and particularly one with the recent astronomical prices, promotes looting and destroys archaeological context.

Museum curators, dealers, collectors, and even a few scholars take the opposite view, pointing out that the antiquities trade has existed since, well, antiquity. (And that eliminating it altogether would force those with unprovenanced artifacts or accidental finds to go underground, thereby – you guessed it – encouraging looting and destroying archaeological context.)

“The state of the discussion between archaeologists and museum curators and directors is so polarized that it has ceased almost entirely to be productive,” says archaeologist Geoff Emberling, who is also museum director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, whose museum specifically does not acquire pieces on the market.

Emberling calls the lioness sale a “catastrophe,” saying that prices at this level put archaeological sites in greater danger than they have ever been before. “In the big picture,” he says, those artifacts “are better off still in the ground, awaiting a detailed excavation. But I acknowledge that’s sort of a dream.”

In the meantime, the question of who owns antiquity persists. Is it the farmer who stumbles on an ancient piece of silver while tilling his field? Or the government that demands he turn it over as state property? Or the cultural descendants of the civilization that made it? Or the criminal who spirits it away into hiding? Or the collector who eventually buys it? Or the museum that receives it in someone’s will? No one at all – or everyone?

Jasper Gaunt could be the Platonic form of a Ph.D. Pensive gaze, salt-and-pepper shag, soft leather briefcase clutched in his lap, he looks as though he’s been thinking about history since he was 5. And actually, he sort of has.

Born in Rome with an archaeologist for a grandmother, he says the Forum was the only place to play. So it wasn’t a shock when he decided to pursue his doctorate in vase painting, and today he’s the curator of Greek and Roman art at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum in suburban Atlanta.

“There are lots and lots of stories of people bankrupting themselves and going nuts about collecting things,” he says. “One of the world’s earliest panel paintings belonged to Gyges, one of the kings of Lydia in the seventh century. And he paid what was at the time a record price. Pliny tells us it was staggering.”

What we consider antiquities today began traveling the world as ancient empires were built and trade routes opened. As early as 2750 B.C., the Sumerians were collecting Persian and Egyptian works. The Emperor Hadrian collected from Greece and Egypt in the early second century. The Vatican began formally displaying its collections in the 16th century and subsequently pushed for measures to protect and build its stores, including new excavations. (Gaunt is cracked up by correspondence between the second earl of Shelburne and his agent in Rome: “The question was, ‘Something was found – does the Pope get it?’ “)

Conflict went hand in hand with collection. No sooner did the earl of Elgin Thomas Bruce remove his Marbles from the Parthenon during the Ottoman occupation of Greece in the early 1800s than some of his contemporaries began calling him a vandal. (Lord Byron, in fact, wrote a stern poem in protest.) And it’s said that after Howard Carter discovered King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, his team used sharp tools to remove the Pharaoh’s death mask and adornments, leaving his mummy in 18 scattered pieces. No wonder they were cursed.

The problems endured into modern times. For every artifact with a documented history of legal ownership and sale, dozens more are supposedly from an “old European collection” or some similarly suspicious source. They are the ones governments are likely to pounce on. As former Greek culture minister Giorgos Voulgarakis told London’s Guardian newspaper in 2006, “Whatever is Greek, wherever in the world, we want it back.”

Gaunt isn’t swayed. “Is that constructive?” he asks. “It’s political, and a total PR campaign.” For Greeks outside Greece, he says, it denies any access to their heritage, and perhaps worse, stymies the cross-cultural understanding museums are built upon.

Still, today repatriation is the rule: Institutions including the J. Paul Getty Museum in L.A., the Metropolitan, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have sent disputed pieces back home, and without going to court. But if all the drama sounds like a deterrent to collectors with scruples, Gaunt says it shouldn’t.

“No museum would be anywhere without our collectors’ backing,” he says. “Coming from Europe, I’m deeply impressed by the way in which American museums reach out to the community. And it’s paid for by very wealthy patrons, in a brilliant manner. And, yes, there’s all the hype – to spend the money and have your name on labels and galleries – but it’s done for the greater good. It really is.”

Whatever the antiquities trade’s troubles, not everyone is shocked by what’s happened. Brothers Hicham and Ali Aboutaam have been surrounded by antiquities since they were toddlers, traveling the world with their father as he bought and sold artifacts for his successful Beirut business. Once they were old enough to join in, it wasn’t long before they’d earned a reputation for something like recklessness.

“I remember there was an auction in London,” says Ali, who’s known for being the quiet older brother with a wild buying streak. “I was 25 years old, wearing a jean jacket, and it was an auction of really tiny things. I was trying to buy the whole thing – everything.”

As the Christie’s auctioneer brought the gavel down to such unprecedented proclamations as, “Sold to the gentleman in the denim jacket,” Ali continued outbidding even his most enthusiastic competition, going so far as to pay £14,000 – or 70 times the estimate – for a piece listed at £200 to £400.

” ‘This is a record!’ – the auctioneer was making comments like this,” he says, laughing. “Then my friend who worked with us went to collect the pieces and check what was worth the £400,000 I’d spent. He could put everything in his hand.”

What probably seemed foolish then wasn’t much of a gamble in retrospect, according to the blogger running the d2 store. Hicham grew up collecting Greek and Near Eastern seals, and Ali, ancient coins, so it wasn’t difficult for them to see the value in even the smallest relics of antiquity.

“That was such a gift from our father,” Hicham says, “the appreciation of little things, with exquisite carving, or exquisite detail.” Much of what Ali bought at Christie’s that day has since sold for double or triple the original price, with some of the finest pieces still in the brothers’ collection.

“We’re buying so much all the time,” Ali says, “but it’s because these things will not come back. Most people don’t understand, but when you feel that you are not going to see something like this again, you try as much as you can to get it. Sometimes more than you can.”

It’s a philosophy that’s also passed down from their father, whose business was known for its aggressive acquisitiveness. When they inherited the business after losing their parents, the brothers carried on in this tradition, but the secretive world of antiquities dealers was undergoing a transformation that made old practices anathema. And Phoenix Ancient Art, as the brothers now called it, ran into some very public trials.

Today the family business is very different. Phoenix, once an appointment-only gallery, now has offices open to the public in New York and Geneva. It publishes glossy catalogs and offers curated exhibitions of its collections. Determined to transform their public image, the Aboutaams have courted the press, spoken out in favor of regulation, and worked to broaden their client base.

“We just sold a $150,000 piece over the web,” Hicham says. “We never met. The buyer just wired the money, and we sent the piece. That’s it.”

The most crucial development at Phoenix, though, has been their new guarantee: So we sold you a million-dollar artifact whose provenance turns out to be false? Return it for a full refund! (Even if, in these pro-provenance times, we won’t be able to give it away for free now.)

“You want a dealer who’ll stand behind the pieces and anticipate potential issues,” says Peter Chavkin, a partner at the law firm Mintz Levin, who has worked with the Aboutaams and others in the antiquities field, “and the Aboutaams have the wonderful approach of not sticking collectors with a piece that turns out to have problems.”

The revamped business model has Phoenix doing better than ever before. Insiders say it has traditionally done more business in antiquities than Sotheby’s and Christie’s combined, and though Sotheby’s record sales of the bronze Artemis and Guennol lioness in 2007 will change that, Phoenix also had a banner 2007. Last year the gallery sold 12 pieces for more than $1 million each, compared with just two in 2005. (By comparison, Sotheby’s sold no antiquities for more than $1 million in 2006, and six in 2007, four from a single museum collection put up for auction.)

When it comes to appreciation, Phoenix’s numbers hold up as well. In 2001 the gallery sold a Cycladic marble idol – a 4,000- to 5,000-year-old form known for its abstract lines – from Greece to a private collector for $340,000. In 2007, Phoenix sold another Cycladic idol, of similar quality but one inch shorter, for $950,000 – almost triple the comparable sale.

And the business continues to grow. Last year Phoenix sold to more private collectors than museum clients, and the Aboutaams estimate that 25% to 30% of those private clients were new – a marked shift from the fixed, closed group of collectors and museums that have traditionally made up their business.

What’s more, expertise like the Aboutaams’ is becoming increasingly advantageous. The stemmed antiquities supply has encouraged sellers to put more average specimens on the block, sometimes obscuring the standouts in an auction catalog.

“Auction houses don’t necessarily know the value of the great masterpieces,” Hicham says. “They’re good at the average pieces, but they’re not used to handling the top works. This is why when I hear the estimate at $100,000 for something I’m pursuing, I go with a budget of a million. That means something. That means what I’m seeing is not what they’re seeing.”

At a Sotheby’s auction last year, a head of Hercules came up with a presale estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. Ali grabbed it for $300,000, a sum Hicham later called “ridiculous” – as in ridiculously low. Why? Because having grown up collecting ancient coins, Ali quickly identified the head as one of the Roman Emperor Commodus representing himself as Hercules, which made it considerably more valuable.

But the mere presence of these artifacts on the licit market is a sign of antiquities’ potential. “There are antiquities available for purchase that are considered among the finest five in the world,” Hicham says. “Compare that to an Impressionist painting or the Old Masters, where the top 20 or 30 are off the market – in public institutions – and it’s obvious why there’s so much interest in antiquities.”

By all accounts, despite the fact that most newly excavated antiquities will be off-limits, some great works are still in private hands and could yet appear on the market. Much of the collection the Vatican has been building for more than five centuries – all of which it couldn’t possibly display – is just sitting in its storerooms.

Jasper Gaunt, given the opportunity to study some of it, was only the second person to see it in 40 years. And recently Ali Aboutaam returned from a surreal visit to a Delaware family’s warehouse: “We were seeing this amazing collection, all in boxes, with cheap furniture and bottles everywhere, like a junk shop. And then in all of that, there are just these gems.”

Though the American wealthy have historically dabbled in antiquities, the field has been largely unknown to most U.S. citizens. And not just for financial reasons. In Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world, ancient history is never far from modern life; Americans just don’t live that way. So it has taken U.S. collectors longer to connect with antiquity, and some would argue that the connection many feel now is owed in large part to all the titillating bad press.

But the marketplace is changing. When the Artemis sold at Sotheby’s last year, the auction room was full. There were the people you’d expect – bespectacled dealers cradling catalogs and brandishing paddles – and many others too: middle-aged couples in loungewear, a hyperactive grade-schooler with his blond mom, even a dealer who’d had too many drinks at lunch and spent much of the auction fondling the wares in a disturbing fashion.

The objects on display, far from sequestered and secure, were spread around the room, being looked at and leaned on. Someone had discarded a couple of Coke cans and a Cheetos bag behind a sarcophagus. Hardly a stodgy affair, the auction had the appearance of an all-American afternoon out.

And that’s as it should be, says Hicham: “There are more and more Americans – all sorts of different classes and types of Americans – traveling throughout the world, going to museums, visiting old Europe, bringing these interests home with them, and wanting to learn more. They go see these things and think, ‘Wow, it can be this beautiful?’ It’s grassroots. It’s exciting.”

Americans’ historical detachment may even help make them smarter buyers. “American collectors are very enthusiastic and intuitive,” says Gordian Weber, a second-generation German antiquities dealer and an archaeologist. “Their intuition to invest in quality, not so much in history, is always right. While in Europe we’ll always have the historical collector who’ll buy a piece because it shows a certain aspect of this, or was collected by that family – when it’s still a terrible piece – for you, quality is essence.”

There is something at work here that emperors, tomb raiders, and Englishmen seem to have known forever. “A great work of art is great the moment that it’s made,” says Michael Bennett, curator of Greek and Roman art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “When you look back over thousands of years, a thing that has always been great will be great today, and it will be great a thousand years from now. So antiquities aren’t as speculative as some areas of the art market. But there’s more to it than that. There’s a feeling when you’re looking at one of these pieces that you’re looking directly into history.”

So if, on the arc of investments, a Jeff Koons sculpture is Google stock, then an ancient work is perhaps most like the family home – an asset whose monetary value may rise or, ahem, fall, but whose intrinsic worth reaches far beyond the market.

“It’s not that I’m so interested in the market being lower or the market being high,” says Steinhardt. “I just hope that the piece I really care for comes my way. As a collector, I am shepherding this stuff for a brief period, and what’s going to happen when I’m gone? It’ll wind up in a public institution. So, what was the tragedy? That it was in my living room for 15 years before it went there?”

People like Steinhardt tend to be not just collectors but also students and stewards. They fund research, endow galleries, and eventually bequeath their artifacts to museums.

It’s easy to understand why, listening to Jasper Gaunt. While every new construction project in Italy or Greece may yield another ancient vase, that piece will go into one of those countries’ museums. But outside Gaunt’s museum in Atlanta, there isn’t another piece of ancient art on public display for hundreds of miles.

So when he sees a visitor transported by a glimpse of the ancient world, the importance of these works – and the people who collect and protect them – becomes clear. “If you take $57 million and you ring Mr. Damien Hirst’s doorbell, you don’t get much, frankly,” Gaunt says. And should Hirst’s shark even hold up for 5,000 years, it remains to be seen if the value would too. But, for a fraction of the price, you could become the curator of something great – right now.  To top of page