Antiquities: New Highs For Old Treasures

As a mergers-and-acquisitions specialist in New York City, Roy Tanfield spends most of his time with business executives and financiers. But his heart belongs to Genghis Khan.

Mongolian iron cap-helmet, 1300 A.D., purchased last year for $7,200.
Mongolian iron cap-helmet, 1300 A.D., purchased last year for $7,200.

“Having worked on Wall Street for the past 30 years I’ve learned that it’s a God-awful business and you have to have a hobby to keep your sanity,” he jokes. “I’ve always been fascinated by history so I collect antiquities. I’ve being doing it so long that I’ve lost count of how many pieces I actually own.”

Indeed, Tanfield’s collection of “several hundred pieces,” proudly displayed at his homes in New York and New Jersey, includes artifacts and historically significant arms and armor that range in value from $50 to $100,000.

His most recent purchase is a Mongolian iron cap-helmet, circa 1,300 A.D. (around the time of the Mongol emperor and military conqueror Genghis Khan) for $7,200.

As an asset category, antiquities behave a lot like commodities. Price is driven by supply and demand, and they don’t necessarily correlate with economic or equity performance.

Patience Pays Off

High quality, rare examples of Egyptian jewelry, Roman coins, prehistoric fossils, Greek vases, shipwreck coins and tribal carvings, for example, will nearly always appreciate in value for those who are willing to wait, says Costas Paraskevaides, head of, a British-based online marketplace for ancient antiquities.

“Investors, as well as collectors are looking at disappointments on the stock market, the low interest their money is now making in the bank and are looking for alternatives,” he says. “They’re excited by the fact that this ancient material is finite and numbers are dwindling as buyers increase and museum purchases act to take things off the market permanently.”

The 2007 Sotheby’s New York sale of “The Guennol Lioness” for $57.2 million, a 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian statue, broke the record for most expensive antiquity ever sold at auction.

“That’s the first time people outside the market really stood up and noticed what was going on,” says Paraskevaides. “We were describing this market as undervalued for so long it became cliché, but I think people are coming to realize that antiquities and ancient collectibles are fascinating, yes, but they can also achieve the headline prices associated with paintings and other works of art.”

Prices, he notes, also climb when new items on the auction block generate a buzz among collectors.

The recent sale of the large Axel Guttmann collectionof ancient classical and Near Eastern armor in London and Munich is a case in point.

“Everyone thought there was so much of this material (it took eight auctions to sell the huge collection) that prices would logically decline,” says Paraskevaides. “In fact, the reverse happened and the high publicity of the sales attracted not only new collectors, but investors who wanted to cash in on what they saw as a safe bet—these objects were all well (researched for authenticity) and of a high quality.”

Max Bernheimer, international head of antiquities for Christie’s auction house, who specializes in items of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Near Eastern origin, concurs that interest in ancient artifacts among collectors and investors is on the rise, despite the economic decline.

In part, he notes, that’s because many collectors have deep pockets and are somewhat immune to economic forces.

“It’s an absolutely excellent market right now,” says Bernheimer. “I would call it a masterpiece market. There is definitely a lot of money out there and people are looking for great objects so the up end of the market is doing really well and the bottom end is strong, but not at the same level.”

Prices for such items range from a few thousand dollars to many millions. One of the perks of the antiquities market, he says, is the investment stability it provides.

“Unlike other types of art, we don’t experience crazy highs, but we also don’t suffer from lows,” says Bernheimer. It’s a very steady, solid market.”

Fabulous Fakes

It's also a slippery one wherein it's easy to get burned.

Appulian Bell Krater (350 B.C.), sold in 2010 for $4,000.
Appulian Bell Krater (350 B.C.), sold in 2010 for $4,000.

According to Bernheimer, buyers interested in owning antiquities should research the market carefully.

“The biggest thing is really to know what you’re buying,” he says. “Study the market, go to museums, read the books and ask the right questions. In this field, the first question you always want to ask is what is the provenance (or history of ownership and record of authenticity). You don’t want to buy something that doesn’t have a collection history.”

You should also focus on items that are not overly restored, he says.

“You want to buy things in as pristine condition as possible,” he says, noting that a 2,500 year old vase may have missing parts or been repaired. “If some parts are missing or repaired on the bottom where it doesn’t effect the painted areas it may be minor, but if it’s the head that’s missing it really effects the value.”

Both Paraskevaides and Bernheimer agree that buying from a reputable source, which researches authenticity and resells only legally exported objects, is also critical—a lesson Tanfield learned first-hand.

“There are so many extremely good fakes out there that it’s unbelievable,” he says. “I saw two in the past week. I was actually bidding on a Roman helmet for $12,000 until I realized it was a fake. It was so good that only collectors with a lot of experience could have figured it out.”

Collectors also note you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck by focusing on the best piece you can afford, rather than dividing up your investment among multiple lower priced pieces.

And they suggest collectors set limits on how much they’re willing to spend.

“Auctions sometimes give buyers a false sense of security and it’s easy to keep bidding, lulling yourself into believing that whatever you pay it must be fair market value,” says Paraskevaides. “I would encourage investors to enter this market, but do so cautiously. Stick to one or two collecting areas and study the prices realized at auction for the past ten years or so to get an idea of how much it might be worth.”