Monday, March 14, 2011

"Buyers have had their fingers burned": antiquities as investments

Tara Loader Wilkinson was written a piece on antiquities as investments for the Wall Street Journal ("Pricing the Priceless", March 14, 2011). The article asserts that the value of antiquities has soared after talking to G. Max Bernheimer.
Since 2006, sales at the privately-owned auction house have quadrupled from $10.2 million (€7.5 million) to $42.7 million. What is more, unlike other parts of the art market, sales have steadily increased throughout the recession.
My own research suggests that Christie's New York auctioned $9.6 million worth of antiquities in 2006, and £4.1 million in London. By 2010 this had grown to $42.7 million in New York, and £7.8 million in London. This is indeed a quadrupling (at least in New York, but not in London), but the rate has not been steady and it is unclear if 2010 was an unusual year. An overview of the market suggests that 2008 and 2009 were lean years (together worth $22 million in New York). And it needs to be remembered that $16.8 million from 2010 was from a single Cycladic figure; the Crosby Garrett helmet sold for £2.2 million in London.

There is no detailed discussion of Sotheby's that auctioned $91 million worth of antiquities in 2010 (and $10.2 million in 2006). By this standard Christie's has rather lagged behind its rival.

The area of investment is a topic that I have addressed before, specifically in a discussion of a youth with cockerel that was offered at Christie's in June 2010. Indeed over a six year period the sculpture lost $2705 in value. A similar pattern emerged from the sale of an Australian private collection in London.

The issue of recently surfaced antiquities is raised by Philip Hoffman, a former finance director at Christie's.
Buyers have had their fingers burned acquiring pieces which later turned out to be illegally excavated. Many were forced to return them and lost millions.
The article then alludes to the Dekadrachm Hoard that had been purchased for some $3.5 million.

The article closes with a quote from Bernheimer:
"Buying through an auction house, where due diligence is incredibly thorough and everything is openly published in the catalogue, limits the possibilities over ownership and repatriation issues later on."
This does explain why Loader Wilkinson did not refer to another article in the Wall Street Journal from June 2010 or indeed review some other related stories.

Has the Wall Street Journal failed to give a rigorous assessment of the situation?

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