Monday, 24 February 2014

Celtic antiquities -- the state of the market

Portobello Road Market, Notting Hill, London
photo: Chensiyuan
Unlike the more popular Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, one cannot plot the market in Celtic antiquities on a year to year basis because of the rarity of the material. Apart from brooches (mainly fibulae) and various dress fasteners and other mounts from Celtic workshops in the Roman period, these objects are rare.

If you are new to collecting antiquities and ask those in the know for guidance, the commonest advice you will get is "buy the books first" and "start out buying from reputable dealers with experience in the material".

The knowledge of many dealers in ancient coins and antiquities can be considerable. In fact, you will usually get better information on an antiquity if you take it to a specialist dealer rather than a museum. The reason is that the dealer will likely have seen more examples over the years and his or her reputation and livelihood depends on such knowledge. Most dealers (with an actual shop) also usually have a very large library. It is all different with early Celtic art and it did not take me long to discover that only a few academics are knowledgeable enough to give very dependable information. The books, too, are often expensive and sometimes very difficult to find. General studies of Celtic art are more accessible and will give you a very good grounding in the main styles but they mostly illustrate the sort of objects that even the wealthiest and most enthusiastic collector will never find. You could do no better than to start with Ruth and Vincent Megaw's  Celtic Art: From its Beginnings to the Book of Kells. Not only is its 300+ pages packed with good information and an enjoyable read, its bibliography is about as good as it gets. Instead of the common sort of bibliography where everything is listed alphabetically by the author's name, the Megaws list the works by the chapter and subject. The material book, itself, is a Thames & Hudson product and even as a paperback is bound in signatures instead of the usual, glued, "perfect binding" (the sort that frequently falls apart). It is also a bargain!

The main references to early Celtic art, such as Jacobsthal, Jope, Raftery, and the Megaws supplement to Jacobsthal (forthcoming) are going to cost quite a bit. The links all go to Abebooks and are the most inexpensive of the listings -- even then, those three titles will cost you nearly $800 US (and a bargain at that). But this is still only the beginning -- much of the information on early Celtic art is published in scholarly journals, and these can be both difficult to find and relatively expensive when you do. Many universities, however, have these journals in their library shelves.

So whenever you see Celtic antiquities listed for sale, check to see what references are given, and do follow up on that (I have seen some very dubious references listed). A dealer who is inexperienced might imagine that his La Tène 1 fibula is just about the same as any La Tène 1 fibula -- I once saw a Balkan variety listed as a British "Wessex" type (with a reference). The two types are very different.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme can be a good reference for the British material, but again -- check the references as the skill levels in recording varies considerably, and these references are sometimes given by dealers without mention of any inaccuracies. Here is an example from one Ebay dealer and its PAS record. It is certainly a high quality example, but its date range is all wrong. Instead of "Iron Age", and 100 BC to 43 AD, it should be "Roman" period and late 1st century to middle second century AD. I would reference the teardrop or petal-headed fasteners most common to the reign of Antoninus Pius (J. P Wild, Button and loop fasteners in the Roman Province, Britannia, 1970, for the motif and the Middlebie, Dumfriesshire, hoard (Jope, plate 278b) for a slightly different belt mount but also with the petal motif. Perhaps the price might be somewhat less if the actual date was given.

There should be more dealer references to the PAS, but most detectorists that report to the PAS keep what they have found. This is unfortunate but is probably due to an irrational dislike for the trade among such people. Anyone who is supportive of recorded findspots should really be trying to encourage finders to release some of what they find to the market. There are two reasons for this: first, anything with a PAS listing should come with a premium price -- for a start, you do not have to worry too much about modern forgeries and will perhaps get a reference that could be expanded by other references, second, the detectorist that becomes a specialist collector might also expand our knowledge of the subject. Not relying on what the detectorists finds themselves, they will also purchase items from the trade, using the proceeds from what they sell that is outside of their specialty. Lastly, of course, the market itself will improve in its level of cataloging.

On a rare occasion, the big auction houses will offer Celtic antiquities. Often these are multiple-object lots such as this one. Sold separately, these item would fetch much more, but if you are just after the gold earrings and do not collect fibulae, you would have to resell the rest. It is really a dealer's lot.

Without researching Celtic art before you start to collect, stay away from Ebay. There are a lot of items listed as "Celtic" that are not: just about any bronze harness ring from the Bronze Age to the fifteenth century is likely to be called "Celtic ring money", and I have even seen "Celtic arrowhead money" (the Celts did not have archers). You might also see fakes, modern objects and even modern cut gems listed as Celtic. The word attracts viewers to lots and I suppose that the dealers think that if you see their "sacred Celtic amethyst crystal" while you were looking for a terret ring, you might not be able to resist buying it. Generally, accurate Ebay descriptions of Celtic antiquities are about as easy to find as exit signs in department stores. Once you learn a few things, however, the lack of skill of some Ebay dealers can pay off. I bought the third known example of a British Celtic shield handle mount listed on Ebay as a "Roman saucepan handle".

In summation, the state of the market for Celtic antiquities is nebulous. There are great bargains to be had, but you can also pay too much or get something just posing as a Celtic antiquity. Read first -- collect later.

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