Antiquities: The Hottest Investment

By Maria Baugh Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007

The sculpture is just three and a half inches tall and looks like a female body-builder with a lion’s head. But there’s no question that the 1948 purchase of the “Guennol Lioness” by Alistair Bradley Martin was a brilliant investment. The 5,000 year-old piece of Mesopotamian religious art — presumably of Inanna, goddess of sex and war — was sold at auction by Sotheby’s New York last week for a record-shattering $57.2 million. Found at an archaeological dig near Baghdad, it is an extremely rare representation of the goddess — known elsewhere as Ishtar — in animal form. She is one of the earliest of the gods whose names have survived through history. Before her sale, the most expensive piece of sculpture of any period sold at auction was a piece by Pablo Picasso which went for $29 million. The previous antiquities record was set by a Roman bronze which sold for $28 million.

Such prices may scare away ordinary investors from even considering antiquities, which are defined as relics of ancient times that include coins, sculpture, tools, pottery and jewelry. among other objects. Can such objects even be a possibility for folks of much more modest means?

The good news is that it is possible for the individual investor to buy antiquities — and for a surprisingly moderate sum. According to John Ambrose, founder and director of Fragments of Time, a Boston-area antiquities dealer, they’re within even a modest investor’s reach. “For under $10,000 a year you could acquire two to four quality objects with good provenance that you could expect would not only hold their value but increase in value over time,” he says. In the past, the increase was anywhere from 8 to 9% annually, but in recent years that figure has gone up.

Hicham Aboutaam, who is co-owner with his brother, Ali, of Phoenix Ancient Art in New York City and Geneva, attributes the increasing value to a couple of factors. For one, there is now a finite number of legitimate objects circulating in the U.S. due to more stringent art import legislation, enacted within the last few years. In addition, there is an increased interest in art and antiquities as investment. “People have started to appreciate the fact that this is a field where you can still get high quality objects for a fraction of what you would spend on a contemporary art object, where speculation is the biggest element determining value,” he says. Ambrose agrees: “The art market has gained status as a respected asset class.”

So what should the novice collector know before jumping in and buying the first Greek vase they find? Ambrose advises that they study up on an era or object that they are truly interested in. He also suggests building rapport with a dealer. “A respected dealer will work with you…and they love to share their knowledge,” he says. Aboutaam says that the new collector needs to understand the importance of the provenance, or history, of the object. “Check the authenticity of the piece. Who is selling it and who has seen it in terms of scholars or experts?” he says. “And it’s crucial to get a condition report from a third party.”

Are there particular eras that the investor should look at now? “In terms of investments I do think there are still pockets of antiquities that are generally undervalued,” says Ambrose, sounding as much like a stock broker as an art dealer. He lists Roman lamps, Roman bronze brooches, Greek pottery (especially south Italian Greek pottery) and Egyptian amulets, which, he says, are overlooked. “There can be fascinating intact examples,” says Ambrose.

And, no matter how ornate a stock certificate might be, an Egyptian amulet is always going to look better in your living room display case.