People have been living in the ancient lands of Gandhara, a remote mountainous region that stretches across northern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, since at least the sixth century B.C. The region was home to Prince Siddharta Gautama, the original Buddha. Later it was a haven for Chinese refugees fleeing Huns, as well as a conquest of Greece's Alexander the Great. In the mid-1990s, it was the place that touched off Hunter Lipton's obsession with collecting antiquities. Lipton, a Manhattan real estate developer, holds a piece of that rich history in the palm of one hand as he cradles a small sculpted head the size of a strawberry and made of indigenous schist, a greyish-green metamorphic rock. They once adorned monasteries and were made to depict monks and their attendants. You might think a 2,500-year-old artifact like this, a gift from Lipton's father, is priceless. In fact, five such pieces together cost the elder Lipton just $2,000 in 1994. "You can spend $1,000 or $1 million, but it's still hundreds of years old, and it always has a great story behind it," says Lipton, 38, who has since accumulated about 25 pieces in a collection that includes Byzantine bowls and fragments of Roman statues.
Antiquities are a tiny part of the giant art market. But they are starting to attract new interest from collectors and investors -- especially for artifacts from Rome, Greece, and Egypt that date from the Stone Age to about the 1st century A.D. Why now? A crackdown on the black market for art and antiquities -- a close third to drugs and weapons trafficking -- has spawned tighter controls on the flow of what is already a finite supply. Plus, countries such as Italy, China, and Turkey are becoming more vigilant about preserving their cultural heritage and have adopted strict export rules. So, what is owned by galleries and private collectors today is all that can be traded -- at least legitimately.
A TURN TO THE EAST
Dwindling supplies and rising demand have already sent prices soaring. Best-sellers at a Sotheby's (BID ) December antiquities sale in New York included a bronze head of Ptolemy of Mauretania, a member of Roman royalty, circa 520 A.D. Estimated at first to be worth up to $500,000, it sold for a record $960,000. Christie's anticipates some $20 million in antiquities sales this year from four auctions, compared with $4 million in 1995. At a Christie's auction in New York on June 8, a 5,000-year-old Anatolian (western Turkey) marble statue eight inches tall, the Stargazer, sold for $1.8 million -- a record for such an idol.
A keen interest among Westerners about Far Eastern religions and practices -- such as yoga and tantric healing -- is also spilling over into the antiquities world, says Selim Dere, gallery owner of Fortuna Fine Arts in New York. "There's not much Gandharan stuff for us to buy," he says, "so things are up 25% in the last two years, easily."
Collectors don't need big bucks to get started. One-of-a-kind Byzantine gold jewelry pieces thousands of years old are comparable in price to the latest designs from Tiffany & Co. (TIF ) selling for $5,000 to $10,000. Glass and bead necklaces from Western Asia dating from the 1st century have sold for less than $1,000 at recent auctions. Hicham Aboutaam, co-founder of Phoenix Ancient Art in New York, says Roman rulers such as Augustus or Tiberius, as well as Greek vases signed by the artists, are big, yet "people are surprised how affordable they are."
While the antiquities market is still fairly inscrutable, new tracking services are expected to shed more light on authenticity and pricing. Artnet.com -- a database providing auction results starting in 1985 -- will soon add stats on worldwide antiquities sales from private galleries and auction houses. "It will help establish prices more universally so people can be more comfortable with their purchases," says Brian McConville, Artnet's director of sales.
Until then, the best way to start is to figure out what is off limits. Check out the U.S. State Dept.'s Web site at www.exchanges.state.gov/culprop. It will tell you which countries have either bilateral agreements or emergency rulings. The site has an image database that provides pictures of restricted artifacts. Also, check objects against The Art Loss Register, an international database of lost and stolen art at artloss.com.
In general, the more that's known about art and where it has been, the more valuable it is. An object's provenance, or ownership history, would ideally trace it from the archeological site through its different owners. The danger: Even if a work has been acquired legally, it could be seized by authorities because its documentation isn't adequate. "The laws are extremely complicated and changing all the time," says Patty Gerstenblith, a professor and specialist in cultural property law at DePaul University. But you can buy objects that predate national ownership laws and any bilateral agreements between the U.S. and the country of origin if ownership can be traced for at least a couple of decades, she adds.
The best protection? Buy only from dealers who offer money-back guarantees. Most collectors receive a "warranty of authenticity," which validates the year or period of the artwork. But that's not enough. Buyers must ask for indemnification from the seller so that if anyone brings a claim of ownership or improper importation, the purchase is fully refundable. "Simply, if the government comes and seizes it, you want to be refunded your money," says Gerstenblith.
Antiquities sales don't usually grab headlines like those of modern art. Picasso's Garçon à la Pipe, for example, set the art world abuzz last year when it sold for $104 million. But if antiquities haven't been caught up in hype, that's good news for collectors. Opportunities still abound to get into the market before the door shuts tight.
By Mara Der Hovanesian