Thursday, November 24, 2011

Looking Back to Athena Fund II

I can remember the appearance of the sale catalogue that realised the antiquities of Athena Fund II. Objects that passed through that Fund continue to appear on the market so it would be helpful to write a short summary.

As the Washington Post noted, "McNall also runs an investment fund for Merrill Lynch, called the Athena Fund II, that specializes in ancient art and coins" (Heidi L. Berry, "The Ancient Wealth Of the Hunt Brothers", June 14, 1990). Attitudes towards selling and collecting antiquities were very different in 1990 (Andrea Gabor, "Art of the wheeler-dealers", U.S. News & World Report July 2, 1990).
The smart money is backing ancient art. Onetime Texas billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt and his brother William went bust speculating on silver, but their collection of ancient coins, vases and bronzes fetched over $ 23 million at last week's Sotheby's auction -- roughly double the original estimates. Just last year, Canal Capital, a firm controlled by Asher Edelman, a corporate raider and art collector, invested "well over $ 10 million" in inventory for the Merrin Gallery, a leading New York City antiquities dealer. Similarly, Merrill Lynch has launched several limited partnerships that invest in ancient coins. "Antiquities have traditionally been overlooked by the public," says Frank Carr, the portfolio manager for Merrill's Athena funds and chief financial officer at Los Angeles-based Numismatic Fine Arts.
The New York magazine gave a little more detail about the sale of Athena Fund II through Hesperia Arts Auction (Andrew Decker, "The Shock of the Old", November 19, 1990). It revealed that the three main figures were Bruce McNall, Jonathan Rosen ("New York collector and real-estate developer"), and Robert E. Hecht ("the éminence grise of New York antiquities collectors"). According to one of the cataloguers for the sale, Jasper Gaunt, the main consignors were Atlantis Antiquities and Athena Fund II. (Atlantis Antiquities is a consignor of some significance for other reasons.) Only today a North American dealer informed me that Robin Symes was the source of much of the material in the Fund.

The Funds were not a great success ("Merrill to Pay Back Investors in Coin and Art Partnerships", New York Times August 24, 1994):
Merrill Lynch & Company said yesterday that it would pay $20 million to $30 million to settle lawsuits by investors in its ancient-art and rare-coin limited partnerships.
Units in the partnerships, which failed, were bought by about 3,500 investors from 1986 to 1990. They will receive the full $1,000 they paid for each unit in the Merrill Lynch Athena Fund I, Athena Fund II and Numismatic Fine Arts World Coin Fund, excluding any distributions they received from the first two funds.
Buyers desiring to acquire ancient art that had passed through such a Fund would want to be sure of the collecting histories of the pieces.

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