The antiquities trade comes under scrutiny like no other area of the international art and antiques market. For some, the only solution to the issue of looted cultural heritage is to the cease trade in ancient objects altogether. Yet, the barrage of negative press emanating from the media (much of it based on fear rather than hard fact) has thus far done little to dent the appeal of antiquities in the saleroom. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s held lucrative sales in New York in December.
With a documentable provenance now a key component of any lot, these catalogues are much slimmed down from just a few years ago – in total just 242 lots were offered – but the focus is on quality rather than quantity. U.S. and European dealers and collectors made up the majority of the buyers, but there were also contributions from Latin America, the Gulf and East Asia.
At only 46 lots, Sotheby’s sale on 8 December was the smaller but the stronger of the two events, totalling £5m with a take-up rate of 74%. The three highest sellers were Egyptian antiquities that remain the market’s blue-chip stock.
Literally head-and-shoulders above the rest was a granite figure of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess, dating from the prosperous reign of Amenhotep III (1403-1365BC). Standing 2.09m high, it was one of perhaps 600 carved for the great mortuary temple built in the Theban necropolis to honour the pharaoh in perpetuity.
It had two well-known 20th century owners: the former Beatle John Lennon, who had bought it in the 1970s from L’Ibis Gallery in New York, and A Alfred Taubman, Sotheby’s erstwhile owner who acquired it at Lennon’s estate sale in 1986 for around £500,000. Three decades later it sold towards the lower end of a £2m-3m guide at £2.3m, a price which places it among the highest prices for Egyptian art at auction (although well short of the Northampton Sekhemka sold for a record £15.76m at Christie’s in 2014).
This 24cm face fragment from an over life-size red granite head of the 18th Dynasty ruler Amenhotep III, consigned from a private collection in California with a conservative estimate of £100,000-170,000, sold for £740,000 at Sotheby’s New York on December 8.
With obvious decorative appeal, classical marbles are the other strong suit of the antiquities market. A day later, Christie’s offered a life-sized Greek marble head of an athlete from the Hellenistic period when some of the best sculptors of the day were employed to honour successful athletes in stone or bronze. Few good Greek originals (rather than Roman copies) appear on today’s market. Christie’s for example had come from the late American-based collector Lynn Wolfson who acquired it in the 1970s. Guided at £80,000-120,000, it sold for a sale-topping £200,000.
This larger 196-lot sale, weighted more towards Greek and Roman antiquities, was two-thirds sold (67%) posting a hammer total of £2.1m.