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Volume 27, Number 1January/February 1976

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Antiques From The Middle East

Written by Helen Gibson
Photographed by Peter Keen

Several years ago an English North-country woman walked through the venerable gray portals of Christie's art auction house in London and plunked a lidded glass jar down on the reception desk. She had been keeping the children's candies in it until told by a local antique dealer that the bowl could be worth as much as $100.

As she waited for the receptionists to summon the glass expert for the usual free-of-charge valuation, a constant stream of men and women proudly, anxiously or shyly unwrapped their family treasures before the calculating gaze of a band of uniformly young, well-dressed and impressively expert men. Sometimes the owners would sadly repack their heirlooms, having been gently told they might never fetch more than a few dollars. The woman wondered what the verdict on her piece would be.

Today, the "candy jar" sits in a museum in the United States, having been sold for some $32,500 at an auction. It turned out to be a rare, 14th-century covered bowl from Aleppo, Syria—a hot item in what, in the last few years, has been a burgeoning trade in Middle Eastern antiques in London.

Some of those antiques fetched big prices. Not long ago a mid-13th-century flask from Mameluke Egypt brought $17,000. About the same time luxury-class interior decorators could easily get up to $4,000 for a pair of bronze Persian candlesticks and a Kensington dealer unblinkingly asked $500 each for a set of six 17th-century icons from a ruined church in Syria. Business was so good, in fact, that Christie's thought nothing of pinning $2,500 price tags on eyeless alabaster heads from southern Arabia or casually displaying boxes of gold Roman rings from Syria with prices running to $700 each.

Even small dealers reported increased sales. One lady with a stall not much bigger than a refrigerator was displaying such items as a 3,000-year-old Persian soup taster, a wine taster from Cyprus and a Phoenician kitchen weight found near Sidon, in Lebanon. Nearby, the daughter of a former British ambassador said spring and summer crowds were providing brisks sales of silver Bedouin ornaments.

The term "Middle Eastern antiques" is an elastic one, covering anything from Phoenician glass of the fifth century B.C. to Bedouin jewelry made at the turn of the present century, as long as it originated in the Middle East. It includes alabaster heads from south Arabia, Pharaonic funerary equipment, Roman glass made in ancient Palestine, Coptic embroidery from Egypt, 3,000-year-old Syrian bronzes, Persian miniatures and the whole range of the Islamic arts. At the Victoria and Albert Museum there are lustrous brown and yellow ninth-century ware from Mesopotamia, polychrome pottery from 16th-century Iznik, in Turkey, 12th-century bowls from Persia decorated with figures in soft turquoises and rust-reds, mosque lamps with colored glass from 13th-century Syria. Nor does it exclude magnificent carpets produced throughout the Middle East.

Carpets, of course, have always been the most popular of art objects from the Middle East. But in the recent boom they became even more popular. Four major carpet auctions were held weekly in London, Christie's alone was doing an annual $500,000 worth of business in oriental carpets and certain experts in London were writing two and three books at a time to satisfy the rising interest.

According to Stanley Reed, author of three books on carpets, there is special interest in "tribal" carpets. "Twenty years ago, these nomadic people's rugs would hardly have been looked at. But tribal carpets have come up in the world since. I think it had something to do with the fact that a person can recognize the geometric designs, identify them and feel something of a connoisseur.

"These rugs, furthermore, will keep their investment value," he added. "Fewer and fewer rugs are available and there has been intense competition for good pieces."

The competition, of course, pushed up prices. According to Mr. Reed, they will probably continue to go up. "They're still making fine carpets in Persia, but they're terribly expensive. Labor is dearer now—the kids are being sent to school instead of learning to knot carpets. Afghanistan is one of the few places to retain the nomadic carpet industry."

Carpets were not the only items to become scarce. According to dealers, all authentic Middle Eastern antiquities are in short supply throughout the Middle East because governments in the past few years have clamped down on the unregulated export of antiquities that was so common in the 1960's. In Turkey, for example, archeologists are sometimes stationed at main border control points, and in Syria a special police service to keep track of antiquities was established some time ago. A favorite story among London dealers tells of a certain collector in the Middle East who somehow acquired some pieces destined for a Syrian museum. He soon received a note saying that unless these were returned within a few days an unfortunate explosion would accidentally destroy his entire, and highly valuable, collection. The collector did not wait to discover the authenticity of the note.

In the Middle East itself, London dealers used to prefer Beirut. They say the prices were usually fair and that all transactions were made legal by the rule that every antique purchased had to be taken to the Beirut museum. The museum had the option of buying the object—in which case it paid the purchaser the exact amount he had spent—or releasing it for export upon payment of a five-percent tax.

Egypt, which some years ago banned virtually all exports of antiquities, has also worked out a system by which antiques can be shared with those interested. Everything is now categorized under five headings: international treasures for Egyptian museums; objects put aside for scholars to purchase for foreign museums; pieces that are put on view in the Cairo museums but can be released for sale because of sufficient similar examples; a general undecided category of items and, adds one dealer, "quite a lot of rubbish."

As a result of the scarcity, dealers had to be particularly alert to a perennial problem in the world of antiques: forgeries. This problem was not restricted to Middle Eastern antiques. The Chinese have been manufacturing fake antiques since the 14th century and English silver collectors still must check hallmarked silverware closely, as unscrupulous dealers frequently cut hallmarks from one piece and weld them to another. But forgers of Middle Eastern antiques have been exceptionally skillful. Even before the boom, a pre-World-War-II craftsman called the "Berlin Faker" turned out such exquisite Egyptian antiquities that they were bought by international museums. To prevent such errors, everyone in the business now has a full set of photographs of the fakes. But the "Berlin Faker's" son-in-law is currently said to be in the same Egyptian antiquity business.

Forgery was not unknown within the Middle East either. Islamic glass from Syria and Lebanon kept many a craftsman occupied and Turkey and Egypt have fielded some admirable specimens. London's experts, therefore, devoted a lot of time to culling the false from the true. One test that's hard to beat is the carbon-14 test, which can date organic materials, such as wood and bone, to within 100 years. Another is the thermoluminescence test, which can show whether terra-cotta or pottery has been fired more than 200 years ago.

Despite high prices, scarcities and forgeries, the boom continued, particularly at the exclusive establishments of London's dignified St. James area—establishments such as Spink & Son and Christie's.

Spink & Son, a hushed, wall-to-wall-carpeted emporium of antiques, was first established as a silversmith in 1666 and by 1772 had set up shop as gunsmiths and jewelry merchants. By 1975 the firm had added Middle Eastern antiques, art from the Far East, coins, stamps, furniture, medals—the list is long—and had become one of the world's major antique dealers.

Behind the soft lighting and spacious, modern museum-like displays lurks a burglary alarm system to rival that of Fort Knox. Here come customers to seek out advice on Islamic ceramics, a manuscript or piece of glass. They spend thousands of dollars on the right Mesopotamian plate or Persian bronze bowl, for Spink's is that sort of place. Then they may go down the block and spend some more—at, for example, Christie, Manson & Woods, the world's oldest firm of art auctioneers and Spink's next-door neighbor.

At Christie's, a garage-sized room, on the eve of a sale, can be crammed with an amazing assortment of objects: squares of 1,700-year-old mosaics from Syria valued at $700-1,800 each, a second-century bust from Palmyra wearing a Roman-style tunic, Egyptian funerary pots and statues, Syrian bronzes and some polished white alabaster heads with holes in the eyes and beard showing where glass and shell inlays had been fitted.

These heads come from southern Arabia, north of Aden. They belonged in funerary niches in the first century B.C. or A.D. For a time they were very popular among film producers for their Modigliani look, and recently Saudi Arabians began buying them for their new museum. Some of the heads fetched up to $2,500 in auction.

A handful of banded agate "eye stones" filled a whole box at Christie's. These were votive offerings in 1500-B.C. Babylonia. Intended to represent eyes, they were probably fixed into the eye sockets of statues of divinities. One later stone was inscribed to sixth-century Nebuchadnezzar II, famous for building the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Cooperative as they are, most dealers drew the line at discussing the special customers who created the boom: the collectors. Some dealers, in fact, would not even estimate the number of collectors in London, let alone give names, and one collector who agreed to discuss his hobby would only do so under conditions of complete anonymity.

Like many collectors this man drifted into the field naturally; his father had collected carpets and French and Italian paintings. Later, however, he went his own way. "Everything had been said about French and Italian art. I wanted something new."

By "something new," of course, he meant Middle Eastern antiques, which he has since amassed: bronzes, Persian miniatures, glass, manuscripts and oriental carpets. It is an extremely valuable collection—which is one reason why dealers and collectors dislike publicity. Yet price, according to this man, is not the point. "I don't collect for investment, but for pleasure," he said. "When I buy a piece I write the money off. I like to handle my pieces, maybe look at one or two for 10 minutes in the morning, preferably listening to music."

Collectors on that level are, of course, rare. Yet during the boom the same spirit seemed to infect even those who shopped in smaller, less expensive shops. One boy who wouldn't dream of entering the St. James establishments spotted a lovely piece in a stall and spent five weeks paying for it—proof, perhaps, that the beauty of antiquities belongs to all men.

Helen Gibson, formerly with the UPI, writes frequently for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 25-28 of the January/February 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1976 images.