Published: June 18, 2019
Francesca Hickin’s interest and expertise with antiquities began at a young age when she was captivated by Classical myths and family visits to Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. Upon completing a graduate degree in Greek and Roman history at Oxford, Hickin struck up a friendship with the then head of Christie’s head of Antiquities, which led to an internship in Christie’s Antiquities department, and the rest is anything but ancient history. Antiques and The Arts Weekly caught up with Hickin, who has headed Bonhams’ Antiquities department since 2017, for her take on the state of the market, its appeal to younger generations of collectors and what she is bringing to sale this summer.
Describe the current market for antiquities. Are there particular areas that are currently under-collected?
Antiquities is a steady market and is not really subject to fluctuations of taste or fashion. People have always been, and will always be, interested in the ancient world, and collecting antiquities is a way to connect to that, to reach back across millennia and to imagine the lives of our ancestors, and appreciate the skill of those ancient artists. In terms of areas that are under-collected, I would say Etruscan and Daunian works, from the civilizations that fell between the end of the Greek Golden Age and the rise of the Roman Empire. Their art is of a very high quality, with beautiful bronzes, terracotta figures that easily rival Hellenistic marbles as sculptural works, and fantastic pottery, with fun shapes and inventive use of color.
Do you see any interest from millennials or younger collectors? Are you cultivating a younger buyer group? How are you doing that?
Every sale, I see new bidding and buying from collectors in their early 30s, who have enough income at this point to buy a work from a civilization they have long been familiar with. I also think that the price of antiquities compared to those markets more commonly associated with younger collectors, such as prints, contemporary art or watches, is always quite surprising to new collectors. Often, I am told that it is amazing that you can buy an Egyptian mummy mask for less than $6,000, or a terracotta idol from 4,000 years ago for less than $4,000. It’s a clichÃ©, but once people realize that you can buy antiquities safely and responsibly, and that they are, as an entire market, relatively reasonably priced, new collectors start to consider branching into our field. In terms of cultivation, I think transparency is key. We are here to advise new collectors, and this advice takes many forms: what a piece is, how and why it was made, what it signifies or tells us about the ancient world, how it has survived, as well as what is a reasonable price to pay, and explaining what the provenance of the piece is, how it can be exported legally, how to care for the items going forward, etc. We do this through fairly academic, though accessible, catalogs, as well as through direct communications.
For people who want to start collecting but may not have the means to buy something in the five-figure – or higher – range, what are some things of quality in the three-figure or four-figure range people could start collecting?
You can buy great quality antiquities for as little as $600. For example, lovely little Egyptian amulets start at around this price, and a beautiful small Attic owl skyphos costs around $1,200. Hellenistic Greek terracotta heads cost around $700-$1,000 and individual ancient glass vessels are also mostly valued in the three-figure bracket. There are pieces in every sector we cover – i.e. the ancient Near East, Greece, Etruria, the Roman Empire and Egypt, and in all media (marbles, terracotta, glass, bronze, gold, etc) to be found at all price points. The difference between a four-figure piece and a five-figure piece is quality of workmanship, rarity of the object, or of the subject it depicts, and, most importantly, the condition of the item. Sometimes, low prices indicate significant condition issues, so I would be aware of that if that is an issue.
How do you navigate the minefields of authenticity or provenance?
As with all disciplines, we spend a long time studying every object that comes to us, before we decide to take it for sale. My team and I have our own academic training, and more than 50 combined years of experience handling objects. I have an open-door policy, so any academics or researchers who wish to come in and see objects that are with us are very welcome to. This means we benefit from great relationships with curators both in the United Kingdom and the United States who help us ascertain the authenticity of pieces before every sale. As a last resort, we also make use of thermoluminescence testing for terracotta objects, and occasionally C14 testing for wood objects and metallurgy tests.
You have a sale coming up on July 3. What are one or two of the most interesting or important pieces in the sale?
We will be offering the Desmond Morris collection of ancient art, as well as the Gottfried and Helga Hertel collection, both of which were lovingly formed over decades, and include fantastic pieces from Cyprus, Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Near East, some of which have not been on the market for 50 years. Additionally, I am honored to be offering the Hope Hounds, two Roman marble figures of Celtic Hounds, which were found among the ruins of Antoninus Pius’ Laurentine Villa and collected by Thomas Hope (1769-1831) in Italy circa 1795-1803. They were sold in 1917 at Christie’s and have been in the same Scottish family ever since, and now come to auction after 102 years. These hounds were thought to have been lost, so to rediscover them and bring them to market is a huge honor, and I am excited to be giving this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to our clients.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
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