Collecting remnants from our classical past has been an interesting and valuable pursuit since the Renaissance, but the dangers surrounding acquiring such pieces are more prevalent than ever. Once a must have for any erudite person’s collection, Roman and Greek antiquities are now understood as one of the few physical links we have to our ancient predecessors. Avoiding the pitfalls of looted and forged items is essential in the pursuit of relics from Europe’s classical past, and an educated appraiser is the most important tool for success.
The most common items on sale on the market are pottery pieces such as oil lamps, serving vessels and amphorae and small-scale statues typically made of marble. Many of the items have been in circulation for quite some time while others are not deemed important enough to be kept as museum items and thus offered up on the market in an effort to support ongoing excavation. Newly discovered large-scale objects are rarely sold because national museums deem them important links to their past and priceless.
Legal concerns surrounding the provenance of accumulated items have made quite a splash in the news as of late, and many institutions are currently in legal battles defending the methods used to accumulate items in their collection. The Getty in Los Angeles was recently compelled to return 40 items from their collection after controversy surrounding the previous curator of antiquities erupted. One such item, a 5th Century BC statue of Aphrodite, was supposedly smuggled out of Sicily via a network of black market antiquarians (Wiley).
The problem with illegal excavation, besides material theft, is that items dug up as treasure are robed of their context. Archaeology today is a science, and the particular soil level in which an item is found tells these scientists much about the history of the object and site as well. It had been a common practice for Popes of early modern Europe to send diggers in search of artistic treasure buried beneath Rome but these practices were finally abandoned with the rise of modern excavation techniques pioneered by archaeologists such as Heinrich Schliemann.
The rise of Internet sites such as eBay has allowed for an increase in the sale of counterfeit items but thankfully a decrease in theft from archaeological sites. Today a collector has to worry not only about whether or not their item has been stolen but also if the item they have accumulated is a forgery. Matt Palmquist reporting on an article in Archaeology by Charles Stanish notes that as soon as eBay became a popular market fake antiquities were on the top of the list of questionable items being sold. Initially sub-par, these forgeries are now becoming increasingly more sophisticated as the makers refine their industry. The legal ambiguities coupled with the inexpensive production costs make forgery, not looting, a more cost effective means of making a profit from objects of shady provenance.
Consultation services through MIR Appraisal Services Inc. can lead you in the right direction in terms of authenticating conventional fine art and antiques but also such items as ancient pottery and can help you sort out the authenticity of your Roman and Greek items. Our appraisers work hand in hand with a panel of researchers that have seen quite a number of forgeries. With inauthentic items being sold so frequently on eBay and other websites it is no wonder they have seen such items. Remember, a certificate of authenticity is only as good as the organization issuing it.
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Wiley, David. “Getty to Hand Back ‘Looted Art’ in BBC News.
Palmquist, Matt. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of eBay” in Miller-McCune.
Kennedy, Randy. “Collecting Antiquities, Cautiously, at the Getty” in New York Times.