ART MARKET / The Treasures of Old Nile: Drawing-room chic a la Cleopatra: dazzling and romantic, Egyptian glass of the Graeco-Roman period is among the fragments of ancient civilisations which are the latest accessories - and fetch high prices

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The Independent Culture
DAMAGED fragments of temples and tomb furnishings, the mementoes of ancient civilisations, seem to have turned into high-fashion drawing room accessories. Sotheby's and Christie's sold over pounds 1m's worth each in London at the beginning of this month; Sotheby's added pounds 5.4m's worth in New York and Christie's a modest half-million - their two finest Egyptian sculptures, which had been expected to make another million between them, were withdrawn by their owner, a Spanish banker, at the last moment. He reputedly got cold feet over whether they would sell in the present market.

In New York the auctions were gala evening events. Normally only Impressionists get sold out of office hours, so the timing of the sales underlines the new role of antiquities as rich men's toys - though museums, especially new ones like the Getty in California, also compete for the finest pieces.

The number of old collections coming on the market was a significant feature of the December sales. Sotheby's in London had a group of Greek gems, pottery and bronzes from the 92-year-old film critic Dilys Powell. They were leftovers from her first marriage to Humfry Payne, director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens from 1929 until his premature death in 1936, and were obviously oddments that happened to come Dr Payne's way, not a 'collection' per se. Ms Powell was not expecting to get much for them, to judge by Sotheby's estimates - but 60 years after their acquisition, they were regarded as great treasures. Among the engraved jewels were a sixth-century BC black serpentine scarabaeoid, engraved with a chimera or mythical beast, which sold for pounds 16,500, or 10 times estimate, and a cornelian talisman, engraved in the Late Minoan period (15th century BC) which fetched the same price, or five times estimate.

Robin Symes, the London antiquities dealer who holds the number one position in the world market, carried off a fragment of an Attic white-ground vase, exquisitely painted around 440 BC with the figure of a warrior, at pounds 20,900; Sotheby's had estimated pounds 6,000- pounds 8,000 on it.

Even the British Museum wanted some of Ms Powell's gemstones, but the prices went too high. The museum will never buy antiquities without an old provenance to prove that the objects were not smuggled out of their countries of origin. One or two other museums feel the same way, and even private collectors are encouraged by an old provenance - since it means no country is going to demand its treasures back.

Turkey has several court cases running in America at the moment over the return of 'stolen' objects; Italy and Greece are liable to demand the return of objects if they can trace them. By stolen objects they mean antiquities illegally excavated by peasants and smuggled out of the country. A large proportion of the antiquities market is made up of smuggled goods - which is why old collections, with a known history, command premium prices.

Christie's had a collection of Egyptian pieces formed by a European who lived in Egypt from the 1920s to the early 1940s. They wanted to underline the respectability of the provenance to potential buyers without revealing their client's name, so they teasingly published a photo of the old boy preparing supper for his five devoted spaniels on a sunlit bench - without identifying him.

The Egyptian glass is the glory of his collection; a second huge sale of it is scheduled for next July. The Egyptians liked to decorate furniture, and even walls, with inlaid pictures made from coloured glass or faience. Most of what has survived dates from the Graeco-Roman period, around the fourth to first century BC, but glass was first made in Egypt around the 18th dynasty (1555-1350 BC) when Egypt's military power and artistic creativity reached a peak.

Christie's had a blue glass inlay head of the famous Pharaoh Akhenaten, reputedly the first monotheistic ruler, dating from around 1340 BC. It is 1 1/2 inches high and runs from the neck to the forehead, including the ear and the jutting chin. This tiny treasure made pounds 55,000.

Most of the sale, however, was made up of glass from the Graeco- Roman period. There were faces, arms, skirts, torsos, feet, wigs and head-dresses in dazzling colours. In order to show it off, Christie's had mounted the fragments on black velvet, arranging the disparate pieces so as to make up human bodies.

They looked dazzling and romantic and thus attracted fierce competition. One European buyer, who had never dropped into an antiquities sale before, doggedly fought off all opposition to reconstruct a figure. He paid pounds 550 for a crown made of blue and yellow roundels; pounds 4,180 for a turquoise head inlaid with a white and cobalt blue eye; pounds 1,320 for a floral collar in red, yellow, blue and green; pounds 2,970 for two blue arm fragments; and pounds 3,520 for one cobalt blue leg fragment (matching the arms) and two turquoise feet. Each of the pieces measured between one and two inches across.

In the Graeco-Roman period, the Egyptians also made glass bars on the principle of Brighton rock; pictures of birds, beasts or Dionysiac heads were made by fusing threads of coloured glass together, a technique known as mosaic. Slivers or plaques cut from different bars were then built up into pictures. There were many individual plaques in the collection; an Apis bull plaque, measuring 1 1/4 by 1 inch, made pounds 33,000 while a rampant griffin, about half the size, made pounds 11,550.

The mosaic technique was also used to make decorative tiles and the sale included a group of fragments of glass fish, their scales, snouts, tails and fins dazzlingly realised, which made pounds 25,300. There were 55 fragments in all, up to a maximum of 2.5 inches long and 0.08 inches thick, and dated to around the first century. There are some very similar fish in the Corning Glass Museum in America; Christie's suggests that a bath-house decorated with fish tiles was probably found in the 1930s and fragments landed up in several different collections.

Robin Symes of London and a Lebanese dealer from Switzerland were the main buyers of the glass, competing fiercely with each other and running prices far beyond estimate; a few European collectors got a look-in and a sprinkling of Japanese. The enthusiasm of Japanese buyers has been responsible for the rise in Egyptian glass prices since the mid-1980s, according to Christine Insley Green of Christie's.

The sale was undermined, however, by the failure of the star turn - a 21 1/2 inch painted sandstone figure of 'the Royal Acquaintance, the Chamberlain, and Temple Inspector, Per-neb' (thus reads the inscription) of around 2360 BC which was estimated at pounds 600,000- pounds 800,000. At the last minute Christie's had the paint tested and found that some of it was modern; naturally enough, no one bid for this one.

Christie's New York sale also hit trouble. They have just reopened their antiquities department in America and this was their first New York sale for 10 years. Not only was there a lot of dealers' property in the sale, which their clients recognised and shunned, but it was scheduled for the night before the Norbert Schimmel collection came up at Sotheby's - the big event of the winter season - so buyers were saving their money to spend next day. As a result of this, two-thirds of the Christie's sale was unsold.

It was left to Sotheby's to demonstrate the strength of the market next day. Everyone in the field had come to New York for the sale. The late Norbert Schimmel was a German Jew who arrived there in 1938 with dollars 1,500, made a fortune from engraving machines - personalised fountain pens for Woolworth's was one of his lines - and formed a collection of antiquities which has been exhibited in museums across America and Europe. The principal part of the collection has been left to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Sackler Museum at Harvard. Nevertheless, Sotheby's managed to earn dollars 4.2m ( pounds 2.7m) from the leftovers.

Again, it was the Egyptian art that made the highest prices. A blue faience inlay head, a neck and an ear with the face cut off at the forehead measuring a massive 5 1/2 inches, attracted by far the highest bid at dollars 484,000 ( pounds 314,285); it sold to an unnamed European dealer against an estimate of dollars 100,000-dollars 150,000. The head dated from the 19th dynasty, around 1330-1250 BC, and would have been set into a particularly spectacular wall scene or item of temple furniture.

A 10-inch wooden statuette of an elegant bewigged lady of the 12th dynasty (c. 1938-1850 BC) sold for another mammoth price at dollars 473,000. She is a type known as a 'ka' figure; the 'ka' is the spirit of the dead and these wooden portrait carvings were put in the tomb as a refuge for the spirit of the deceased, should anyone interfere with his or her mummy.

It is typical of the new market in these mementoes that the figure was bought by Leigh Keno, a New York dealer in American furniture - presumably for one of his clients. The lady's companion, a 10-inch masculine figure carved from beautifully grained sycamore and wearing a white painted skirt, was left unsold at dollars 100,000. In this new market, the pin- up mentality that prefers slinky girls seems to apply.-

(Photographs omitted)