Monday 23 February 2015

Now that's what I call a mark-up!

Authentic lamp (Christie's)
Ancient lamps made from "bronze" (or to be more technically accurate, copper alloy) can fetch a good price on the antiquities market but real examples that allow the trade a reasonable profit margin can be hard to come by. However, one "leading" antiquities dealer in London - Artemission, owned by Antoine Karawani, a committee member of the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD) - seems to have chanced on a remarkable supply. It must be a pretty large and pretty old supply because they have been selling a substantial quantity of their distinctive bronze lamps with a curiously uniform 'patina' for some years. Unfortunately for their customers, there is a slight hitch  ...

The Bulgarians have been making fake Roman bronze lamps for years. At first, they tried selling them as the real thing on eBay and other outlets - but most of them are blindingly obvious rubbish, buyers eventually got wise to them, and many are nowadays openly sold as "replicas" (though of course for much lower prices than real ones).

They are very recognisable. Here's one of them, sold for $24.99 in 2011 ...

An amazingly similar lamp turns up in Artemission's magic supply. All they have to do is plunk it on their posh website selling "Antiquities and Ancient Art", describe it as "Roman Bronze Oil Lamp ... c.1st Century A.D." and ask their customers for $1,800 ...

Not bad - but Artemission can do better than that. Here's another Bulgarian bronze lamp on eBay - sold openly as "modern" ...

And here's another one (though this one was mistakenly offered as genuine and crazily priced) ...

The eBay example failed to attract any bids at $99. But not to worry, Artemission come across a more refined version (the Bulgarian repertoire offers slight variations) in their legendary supply. Okay, it's still got big unarticulated eyes, tiny pointed ears, and that silly meaningless* lug on its forehead - so still pretty obvious it's rubbish - but it's got a nicer base. Add a little elbow grease and the fake patina is much prettier too. Just plunk it on the posh website, describe it as "Roman Oil Lamp ... c.1st Century A.D." and for this one, ask your customers for $2,500 ...

Hey, that's not bad at all. Assuming Artemission bought them at the going rate - or maybe a bit cheaper with trade discount - so far that's a profit margin of about 97% or over $4,100 profit on just two lamps alone.

Sadly, life is not always so good and sometimes the dealer has to be less ambitious. Well, let's be honest, this Bulgarian monstrosity (below) is even less convincing than the first two and even a punter with one glass eye and a patch over the good eye ain't going to be fooled by it. Even the Bulgarian sellers ask only around $25 for this sort of grade. But Artemission innocently grab one from the uglier part of their supply, plunk it on eBay instead of their website, describe it as "Byzantine Bronze Oil Lamp ... c.6th-8th Century A.D." and ask a mere $500 ...

I'm not vindictive but I do get tired of seeing this rubbish from them year after year. We have to be charitable and assume either that, despite his "over 40 years" in the business, Karawani is astonishingly naive or that his eyesight is no longer what it used to be. Of course, there is a possibility that if his customers ever find out he sold them fakes at high prices and suspect he actually knew very well what he was doing, they may take a somewhat dimmer view.


* The lugs on real lamps are meant for hanging chains from; thus they tend to be flat and of course pierced. (The central protrusion on the hair of the genuine lamp shown at top left is in fact a lidded filling-hole, so not a lug at all in this case.)

Note: Apart from the first lamp shown at top left, ALL the lamps illustrating this post are demonstrably modern. 


UPDATE: Five years later ...

Friday 6 February 2015

Constant Vigilance: Lamps found in Syria

The widespread looting and destruction of archaeological sites in Syria, exacerbated by the deep civil unrest in that area since the spring of 2011, are well known. Looting is driven by market demand and it is therefore vital that anyone considering the acquisition of any ancient object that may have originated in Syria should be particularly vigilant.

Archaeological sites are trashed by looters searching for common saleable objects every bit as much as they are by looters searching for rare treasures. Supplementing the somewhat inadequate Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk issued by ICOM in September 2013, and in recognition of guidelines outlined by the EU (Council Regulation No 1332/2013 of 13 December 2013), I thought it might be useful to publish a small selection of the types of ancient lamps that are typically found in that region.

Open image in new tab to enlarge
It should be noted that while some of the lamps shown are peculiar to Syria, most of those shown were also produced or distributed in neighbouring countries in ancient times. Many thousands of these lamps were legally exported from the Levant over the years and the huge number of those that are still circulating need cause no concern.

Nevertheless, all the lamps illustrated represent types commonly found in Syria and, since in the absence of records it can be difficult to distinguish between artefacts which were legally exported years ago and those which have been smuggled out during the current upsurge in looting, an extra degree of caution is demanded. Due diligence should of course be practised in the acquisition of any ancient artefact whatever its region of origin at any time but it is good to be aware of those whose acquisition may pose a particular threat to archaeological sites in the present crisis.

While the clandestine nature of the trade in illicit antiquities prevents a realistic estimate of the precise amount being smuggled, it is clear that a vast number of Syrian artefacts are making their way through middlemen in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the UAE. Some will be sold on immediately to buyers in the West or elsewhere, while others will be stored until media attention has abated and eventually surface in international markets at a later date.

Note: The composite image of lamps above, formed entirely of my own material, is released into the public domain and free to use.

eBay Antiquities: treasures or trash?

An article about the online auction site eBay in the Daily Mail ("How eBay became an auction house for ancient TREASURES: Dealers turn to auction site to sell rare, authentic artefacts", 5 February 2015) posits "Buyers can purchase authentic coins, clothing and relics at the click of a button ..." and ironically illustrates it with some of the most outlandish fakes imaginable. You gotta love those "Roman" sculptures and the "Greek" pots with strategically-placed blobs of patina.

There is a blessing though. At least the muppets indiscriminately buying this rubbish pose no threat to the archaeological record - as long of course as they don't inadvertently stumble across the real thing.



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