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Indy Lifestyle Online
It looks like the archetypal semi of Seventies sit-com land - the bay window, the ding-dong bell, roses in the front garden - but behind the chintz curtains of 85, The Vale, Southgate, N14 is one of North London's suburban secrets. The fitted kitchen is still there, but covered by a hoard of artefacts from the ancient civilisations of Europe. Pottery from 3,000 years before Christ is stacked casually on the kitchen cupboards, terracotta goddesses share space with framed family photos and a hallway is piled with cardboard boxes containing Roman oil lamps, many bearing the sooty residue from the last time the wick burnt out, almost two millenia ago.

The stock belongs to Chris Martin, a dealer in coin and antiquities who has come up with the innovative idea of a mail-order catalogue of genuine, affordable antiquities. Chris Martin's Ancient Art catalogue is akin to that produced by Past Times, with its artfully arranged pictures and fascinating titbits of information - the only difference is that Ancient Art offers real antiquities, amazingly at around the same price as many replicas.

"We want to show that you don't have to be a collector to buy antiquities," he says, "that you can have something that is old and interesting and beautiful in your living room".

The catalogue's treasures range from Roman glass gaming counters at pounds 4.95 each to Greek household goddesses for pounds 200. You can buy your own shabti - an Egyptian servant for the afterlife - for only pounds 75, or an arrowhead contemporaneous with the siege of Agrigentum in the fourth century BC for pounds 13.95. The catalogue also contains mounts for displaying the objects and books explaining all about the myths and history surrounding them.

Martin says the most common reaction he gets from people is that the artefacts can't possibly be real, but there is a wealth of everyday objects that are too plentiful and of too little interest to be housed in museums. At Bab ad-Dra in Jordan, for instance, there are six million pots still under ground. "The Museum of Jordan is only about ten times the size of this room, and it has some wonderful things. In that space it has to cover the years from 5000 BC to 1000 AD. So all those pots are surplus and worth very little.

"These things were churned out. They were disposable objects. The Roman oil lamps, for instance [pounds 29.95], had around the same lifespan as our electric lightbulbs. As you used them more and more oil seeped into the clay until the lamp wore out, so you just threw it away and made a new one."

Around 60 per cent of the objects in the Ancient Art catalogue come from private collections which are sold to Martin by owners both here and abroad. Some of them are family collections sold as part of a legacy. In some unstable countries antiquities have become a kind of unofficial hard currency. Relatively few of the objects are newly excavated because lack of funds has meant that little excavation is occuring at the moment. UNESCO is currently preparing draft papers to help stop illicit trade in antiquities and to encourage governments to plough funds from surplus material back into archeological work.

As well as being on his guard against fake antiquities, Martin is constantly looking out for repairs, which are often done very skilfully to pass off a damaged article as a perfect specimen. "You can tell a fake by the colours, the patina, even the smell. There are very small degrees of change."

Martin is helped in his office by two assistants both named Nicky, and by Emma Davies, who handles much of the marketing. "The great thing about many of these objects is that you can actually use them - put flowers in a vase, wear the jewellery," she says. She shows me a collection of exquisite iridescent glass bangles (pounds 25-pounds 35), including tiny ones designed for children which would provide a perfect Christening present. The bronze rings and bangles gradually buff up to a mottled silvery colour from their original dull green if worn, making them even more magical. Ancient jewellery seems to have taken the imaginations of fashion designers, too, with Joseph including ancient beads bought from Lord McAlpine's collection in a recent show and fashion editors requesting samples for shoots. "We also had a chap buy a whole set of plates which he intended to use for dinner parties," adds Martin. Other eccentric requests have come from occultists and a woman who thought she was Nefertiti and claimed one of the shabtis was her own servant from a previous life.

Some of the most potent symbolism is to be found in the ancient Palestinian pots, their rotund forms modelled on that of a woman and representative of the female fertility deities. "They were made in the fertile valley, before the time of the wheel around 3000 BC, which is one and a half times further away from the Romans than we are." Five thousand years from a perfectly formed pot to the suburban semi. Isn't civilisation wonderful?

Chris Martin's Ancient Art, 85 The Vale, London N14 6AT (0181-882 1509).

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