COLLECTING ANCIENT GLASS
People think the place to see and admire ancient Roman, Greek, Egyptian or Phoenician glass is in a great museum. In fact, Ancient Glass is available and undervalued. A caveat: delve into its ancient history of plunder and international intrigue and prepare to be addicted. Study in out of way places, prepare for questions: what intrigued you first, where did you find it, do you know itís real, is it expensive? A cheap 2000 year old unique work of art is a wonder to people used to absurd prices for mass produced pottery.
I founded Ancient Art International (AAI) in 1988 after more than 20 years of studying and collecting in the ancient world. My corporate career allowed for travel in Italy, France, England, Persia and Japan granting me time to visit the museums and archaeological sites within striking distance. AAI is ending its second decade offering high quality ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, Gandharan, Islamic, and Chinese antiquities.
I started to do antique shows and was unique in specializing in antiquities. People would ask if the items were for sale. More questions followed. I gave almost non-stop lectures on the history and origins of the piece rather than trying to sell. Using reference books, catalogues, and museum brochures, the shows became more enjoyable, not work at all. Establishing ancient art, publicity attracted the antiquity aficionado who normally wouldnít attend a conventional show. This effort of love paid off. I attracted customers for antiquities, many who had never purchased a work of ancient art. Some auction houses and dealers credit me with starting good customers. Iím pleased to say my several thousand customers worldwide are more friends than business acquaintances.
As this article will introduce potential collectors to the universe of collecting Ancient Glass, here are some fundamentals. Iíve given many lectures on Ancient Glass from scholarly to my basic "Collecting Ancient Glass - what to look for and what to look out for!" at glass collecting clubs, which normally donít consider this old subject matter. A collector of Tiffany, Galleí, or Depression glass is a perfect candidate for delving into Ancient Glass.
With a new interest, itís best to read a lot, study pictures, and visit museums. Visits to reliable dealers and antique shows are important for "hands on" education. When you first purchase, itís not necessary to splurge for a masterpiece. (A Florida analogy: I bought a good used, inexpensive boat initially, easy to unload or upgrade depending on how my interest progressed.)
Importance of dealing with a "reputable" dealer! Look for one who has been in business for some time, has considerable specific Ancient Glass experience (not antique honey pots), offers an unconditional money back guaranty of authenticity in writing! In this field where authenticity and condition are primary, I recommend against the internet.
Ancient Glass is rewarding as discerning the authentic is very easy. I keep a small collection of fakes so that my customers can have a hands on lesson. Patina is most important in Ancient Glass. In the Middle East, e.g. in Israel, chemicals are used to add patina to a fake. Real patina is an oxidation called iridescence. A degradation of the glass surface is caused from contact with impurities and chemicals in the soil over a very long time. In the extreme, glass would dissolve away to nothing. The ersatz patina, although pretty, looks chemical! Tiffany tried to imitate ancient patina, succeeded in making attractive pieces but not close to the real glow.
Condition is extremely important in establishing value. Sometimes the only example in the world Ė such as the Portland Vase in the Boston Museum- will be repaired. (See photo Winter 2009 Antiques & Art Around Fl., p. 29, for descrip. of Portland Vase and why real Ancient Glass is the only way to go.) I personally stay away from any glass with repair unless itís a rare example to flesh out my collection or I just canít afford an intact example. Itís easy to spot repair in Ancient Glass with the use of a good regular or blue light source. A fiber optic probe is especially useful. A patch of dirt smeared on the side of a brilliant vessel is a dead giveaway.
It is the history of civilization, geography and technology that set this area of collecting apart. Famous Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) wrote about glass; Natural History, XXXXVI, 191-2:
"There is a story that once a ship belonging to some traders in nitrum put in here (the coast of Lebanon) and that they scattered along the shore to prepare a meal. Since, however, no stones for supporting their cauldrons were forthcoming, they rested them on lumps of nitrum from their cargo. When these became heated and were completely mingled with the sand on the beach, a strange liquid flowed in streams; and this it is said, was the origin of glass."
In fact, the genesis of glass was much earlier than the Phoenicians in the 1st Mill. BCE. Glass derives from an accident in the Middle Eastern desert 5000 years ago. The sand, soda, silicon and other elements that compose glass exist in abundance there. Glassmaking fragments have been found in Mesopotamia, (meaning "in the middle of the rivers": Tigris and Euphrates) from the 3rd Mill. BCE, probably in modern day Iraq and northern Syria. The earliest example may have been faience, a beautiful glaze (blue or turquoise) which forms when a paste of sand/silica is fired at high temperatures. By 2500 BCE, beads, amulets, jars, vessels and small statues were made. The beads can be made into wearable contemporary necklaces.
Glassmaking evolved into both recorded science and high ritual. Clay tablets were inscribed with chemical composition and fabrication techniques and dictates for choosing the most propitious day, sun, stars, sheep sacrifices and incense. Those who approached the kiln had to be "ritually" clean. 4000 year old tablets actually record our current chemical composition of glass.
Glass was accessible only to the very wealthy or nobility because of the labor intensity and rarity. It could take two weeks to make one small vessel. Glass was figured into jewelry and decorations, cylinder seals and vessels. The wealthy ladies liked it for their unguents and cosmetics. Artisans used glass to imitate other more precious materials such as rare stones Ė lapis, banded onyx, crystal and red agate. Vessels for beer and wine appeared in the mid 2nd Mill.BCE.
Circa 1500 BCE great Eyptian Pharaoh Tutmosis III extended his rule to Syria and Mesopotamia. He captured the glass craftsmen, enslaving and installing them in Alexandria. With the advent of Egyptís major glass industry came a new technique: "core formed" or "sand core" Ė very beautiful and labor intensive. Invariably the first photo in a glass history reference book will be a core formed vessel. The sand core technique resulted in brilliant small cosmetic vessels with multi colored filaments wrapped around the glass core and combed into a delicate feather pattern.
For years the literature called these sand core vessels Phoenician because they were the brave seafaring traders of the 1st Mill.BCE. who plied the waters of the Mediterranean Sea with their wares, of which the most sought after were these very expensive pieces. But we know better.
Glass suffered a decline from 1500-900 BCE and revival under the Egyptians and Greeks, employing the same technology. A major breakthrough occurred around 50 BCE with the invention of glass blowing. It was a great technical discovery as from "one of a kind" art objects taking weeks to make, vessels could be blown quickly. Uses and diversities of shape multiplied and cost dropped dramatically. Glass remained a major art form as vessels could be blown into moulds taking the shapes of heads, faces, fruit and animals adorned with inscriptions, signatures, and more. When collecting, look for embellishments which make a piece many times more important.
The original glass blowing factory site is unknown (several have been excavated) perhaps in todayís Syria, Lebanon, Israel or Egypt. All claim it. During the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus (circa 63-14 BCE) glassmakers were forcibly abducted (again! Ė these guys were in great demand) from Egypt and Syria to Italy, establishing glassmaking as an industry rather than objects for the rich. The world famous Murano in Italy began due to early efforts of Emperor Augustus. Interestingly, one pays more today for modern Murano rip-offs than for an authentic piece of Ancient Glass.
Glassmaking spread rapidly during the 1st-3rd C. CE into England, France, Germany & Spain. Roman period glass has even been found in China dating to the Han Dynasty, perhaps shipped there on camels over the Silk Route, not "Made in China"! The Ancient Glass from the Rhine Valley is unique and collectable, but unusually expensive due to the appetite of affluent German collectors. It is very decorative and colorful, almost ornate!
Glassmaking in 5th C. CE tended to decline a bit after the high Roman Period. A flowering in the Islamic world (8th C. CE) resulted in distinctive Ancient Glass, Collectors could concentrate strictly on Islamic, but the price rise in oil created an immense amount of wealth in the Middle East which led to a bubble in Islamic Art, including glass.
One appealing aspect of Ancient Glass, once the rare province of the wealthy ruling classes, now is accessible to the "income challenged" modern collector. One can buy a perfect piece of Ancient Glass starting at $100. The photo shows an authentic piece of Ancient Glass for $350.
To conclude this little ramble, it should be emphasized that Ancient Glass is not esoteric, but rather an undervalued and attainable way to acquire a museum quality collection. Many acquire with the ultimate goal of donation to an institution at a greatly inflated price, thus attaining fame, respect and a sizable tax deduction! Just beware of provenance if this is your desire.
The media tell us of the dilemma faced by prominent individuals and museums as a result of demands for repatriation of their treasures. Long before Lord Elgin "borrowed" the Parthenonís marbles, the spoils of human wars have included objets díart. The press and the authorities focus on high profile items. Pieces purchased prior to 1973 from legitimate sources will not be questioned. Ancient Glass is almost totally below the radar. So rest assured once you start collecting. Enjoy the excitement of the battles of the Getty (which had a curator indicted) and the NY Met which has arrived at a very balanced Solomonic solution with Italy.
Caveat: When you travel to China, Italy, Greece, Egypt or Turkey do not put that little piece of rubble in your pocket for the ride home as you will end up having a very long holiday in that country in non four star lodging. (In China when you purchase a replica it comes with a certificate claiming itís fake Ė essential for the airport!)
As to appreciation, Forbes Magazine, which runs an" investing in art" column lauded Ancient Glass in my all time favorite Sept.13, 1993 issue featuring Louis Comfort Tiffanyís high prices. He collected in the late 1800ís and was influenced by Ancient Glass, notably Roman. The article explores the values of collecting ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Phoenician glass. I love to tease my modern glass collecting friends with the punchline from the Forbes article: "Why collect Tiffany when you can collect the real thing, ancient glass, at much lower cost and with a much greater chance of appreciation." In my long investing life, Ancient Art is the only segment that has consistently gone up and never gone down. After all, "they arenít making any more of it!"
Richard Brockway, President and Lynette MacLeod, Vice President of Ancient Art International. AAI specializes in Ancient Fine Art incl. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, Gandharan, Chinese, and Islamic. Sold with an unconditional money back guarantee of authenticity and a Certificate of Authenticity. By appt. and at Eclectus in Vero Beach.
Contact: Richard Brockway or Lynette MacLeod, P.O. Box 4350, Vero Beach, Fl. 32964. 772-231-9626,
firstname.lastname@example.org, Website coming.
Photography credits for the Richard Brockway Collection of Art by Frank Miller for an exhibit at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University.
Note: 3 pieces of glass were stolen from the Brockway Collection in 2004. The center piece was the highlight of the collection. Please call 1-772-643-0189 if you have information. Reward offered.
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