17 August 2006
By Rolf Kiaer
This guide is written by Rolf Kiaer, a partner in Helios Gallery Antiquities in the UK. Helios Gallery believe that ethical dealing and collecting can work in harmony with the science of archaeology and they maintain a zero-tolerance approach to illicit, fake or smuggled antiquities.
Rolf is a fully qualified Mesopotamian archaeologist and holds a degree from The Institute of Archaeology, London. He started collecting antiquities at age 6 and became a full-time dealer aged 22.
Rolf now has 12 years professional experience (2006) and was elected to the board of the Antiquities Dealers Association in 2005, he has consulted in several antiques-related programmes and publications, and assists an ever increasing number of museums and institutions in their pursuit of the rare and beautiful.
Why does it matter?
Provenance is the term used to describe the history of an archaeological object since it was excavated.
This can include where and when it was found, by whom it was owned, where it may have been exhibited or published. Provenance for antiquities is often modest (i.e. "from a deceased estate in London"), but what seems banal now may be interesting to a collector in 100 years, so always keep paper-work associated with an item and sell it with the item if you decide to part with it.
Provenance adds value to an antiquity, and the day when un-provenanced antiquities become un-tradable is rapidly approaching. Un-provenanced objects are generally cheaper, but this is because they will always have a lower market value and most reputable dealers and auctioneers will not buy or sell them. Many countries already ban the importation of un-provenanced antiquities: it makes ethical as well as financial sense to ensure you avoid smuggled goods in your collection.
How do I know something is genuine before I buy it?
You don't.... Even the most experienced dealers can be fooled by photographs, it is not possible to be totally confident in an item without handling it, and even then there may be concerns which require further investigation. This means that you must trust the person selling the item or at least study their returns policy very carefully and be prepared to return an item if you believe it to be fake, if you do not return a fake you are helping a crook to cheat other collectors.
If you are not confident in your ability to detect fakes, take the items to a good museum, a reputable dealer or an auctioneer with a dedicated specialist department, do not email random dealers and expect them to study items for you in depth: they don't have the time. Building a long term dealing relationship with someone you trust is the best way forward. Double-check your purchases with another specialist: good dealers are never offended by their clients' concerns for authenticity.
Is this dealer good or bad?
A good reputation is the most important aspect of the specialist dealer. This is why well-known dealers can charge a premium for their objects: the added cost of the confidence of knowing that you are buying real, provenanced objects. Internet chat groups can be a surprisingly good way of checking someone's reputation, some yahoo-groups have over a thousand members and people will invariably share their knowledge or experiences with others who share their interests.
What do professional associations mean?
Nearly all reputable dealers belong to one or both of the internationally-recognised antiquities trade associations: the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) or International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA).
Both have websites with full lists of members, if someone claims membership on their own site but does not appear on these lists they are probably trying to deceive you and we recommend that you report them directly to the appropriate organisation. ADA dealers not only offer their own guarantees but their objects are independently assured by the association so if you think you have bought a fake from a member, the association's board will independently investigate and arbitrate if required; though buying from a registered dealer should mean that this problem will not arise!
All reputable large dealerships are members of professional trade associations. Some smaller dealerships are not in associations due to the high costs of membership or the minimum turn-over requirements to be classified as a professional. A dealer with a seemingly large presence, for example with a turnover exceeding GBP 100,000 per annum, but no professional memberships, should be treated with extreme caution and I would advise that you double-checked their reputation before buying anything
Guarantees, certificates, warranties and receipts: what are they?
Anyone with a computer can print a certificate, therefore they can mean nothing at all. Crooks on the internet play heavily on selling items with "certificates", these have no meaning or value and offer no guarantee of authenticity. Proper guarantees will describe an object in detail or include a photograph so that they can not be inter-changed with forgeries. If a certificate is not backed by a professional association, you are relying 100% on the dealer being honest, it offers you no legal protection. Always ensure that you are supplied with a receipt: this must contain the dealer's registered trading address, registration number, date of sale, and value and nature of the goods. A receipt offers some legal protection, especially in association with credit card payments.
What guarantees should I expect from a dealer?
A good dealer will unconditionally guarantee the age, description and condition of an object which they offer for sale. This goes far above the guarantees offered by most international auctioneers. This guarantee will not have a time-limit: if an item is mis-catalogued in any way, a reputable dealer will refund it at any point as long as they are still trading.
As well as the guarantee, a good dealer will also allow clients to return items bought from photographs (i.e. the internet) for a certain period after a sale if the customer feels they are not happy for any reason whatsoever: reputable dealers acknowledge that it is hard to evaluate works of art from two-dimensional images. Some countries including the UK offer buyers statutory rights to return items bought in this way for two weeks after the sale, we extend this to one month to reflect realistic international shipping standards. This safety-net does not apply to UK auctions who are exempt by law from offering any guarantees or refunds.
How do I avoid buying fakes?
I have not met a dealer or long-time collector who can say that they have never been fooled by a fake at some point: what defines a good dealer is how he or she deals with the after-effects of learning their mistake. Antiquities cover so many periods, cultures, materials and styles that no single person can call themselves an expert on such a broad field.
A good dealer will stick to what they know and thoroughly research everything, consulting colleagues, academics or authorities whenever they are in doubt. Antiquities have been forged for hundreds of years, the Romans even forged Greek sculpture, and technology is forever advancing, so never trust a dealer who cannot qualify why he believes an object is authentic and never trust a complacent response. Dealers call their mistakes their "tuition fees", its an ironic joke, but it reflects the belief that the professional must accept responsibility for a mistake, not the client.
How do dealers detect fakes?
Fakes are detected through experience, research, consultation and analysis. There is no guide book which will tell you the answers because they are sometimes simple and sometimes extremely complex. The most popular categories of antiquities are often the most widely faked: Egyptian faience, Greek pottery, Roman lamps and glass; therefore many of these fakes are instantly recognisable to the experienced viewer, but others are not, and there is no aspect of art, antiques or antiquities which is not prone to faking of some type.
How can I learn more and avoid being cheated?
Ask the dealer specific questions and judge them on their ability to justify their explanations. Invest in reference books and visits to museums, handle objects in dealers' shops or auctions at every opportunity. Seek alternative opinions on dealers as well as their stock. Good dealers will not be-little someone for asking an apparently simple question: we all specialise in different things and one person's expertise is another's total ignorance in any walk of life. Buy cheap fragments which are genuine to help you get to know the "feel" of ancient pieces. And, most importantly perhaps...
"if it seems too good to be true, it probably is"...................