Georgiana Aitken, Head of Sale, Antiquities at Christies South Kensington, was kind enough to answer my questions about auctioneering.
HK:Is it possible for an ordinary person to acquire items from antiquity? If you had, say, a few thousand pounds to spend?
GA:Yes absolutely, antiquities are much more affordable and accessible than people would think. Estimates in our sales start at 500.
HK:How healthy is the antiquity market at the moment from the point of view of the vendor and auctioneer? Has it been hit by the global economic downturn?
GA: The Antiquities market has remained buoyant with strong results in 2009 and higher demand than ever for material with good provenance. In October 2009 (Christies most recent sale) the top lot sold for 169,250 tripling the low estimate. Antiquities offer a tangible store of value that can be cherished and enjoyed, and that can also provide significant financial returns in the medium to long term.
HK: What kinds of people are buying antiquities? Is it mostly inter-museum trading? Could you give a rough estimate as to the percentage of sales going to museums or collectors?
GA: In Christies October 2009 sale private buyers bought 73% of the sale by lot, continuing the trend seen in the previous sale in April 2009 with a shift away from trade buyers.
HK: How does the process work to get things to auction? If I came to you with a statue and claimed it to be from classical Greece, for example, what is done to assess its authenticity and then value?
GA: Our team of specialists have many years’ experience assessing objects and would be able to tell in some cases instantly if a piece is wrong or right. There are specific tests we can perform on terracotta and wood, and in a case of doubt we would call upon the British Museum or a specialist in a particular field for a second opinion. Value is determined by rarity and quality. We bear in mind market trends and where possible take into account prices that similar pieces have realized at auction.
Learn more about the most famous, fascinating and – expensive – ancient artefacts Christie’s has auctioned:
Top 10 Antiquity Sales at Christies.
HK: I would imagine it’s pretty rare to see new and previously unknown artefacts come to sales, or can experts be surprised by the objects which arise from private collections?
GA: Due to the nature of the industry (we do not sell recently excavated or newly discovered material) it is true that completely new discoveries are rare as many important pieces in private collections are known from catalogues and publications, like for example Michaelis’s Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, pub. 1882, or have been exhibited. Occasionally undiscovered pieces do come to light from private collections where the owner was unaware of what was in their possession, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
HK: Aside from at auction, what are the best places to shop for genuine antiquities?
GA: Auctions tend to be the safest way to buy antiquities as you can be certain the auction house has performed full background research for each object. However, other options include registered dealers, Portobello market in London and the internet but it is always important to make sure the seller is reputable before making a purchase.
Antiquities sales at Christie’s are held four times a year; twice in New York and twice in London. The next sale at Christie’s South Kensington, London will take place on Thursday the 29th of April 2010.