Monday, 30 May 2016

Market share and the past: part 3.

The missing link: British Celtic sword pommel in Jacobsthal's 'Plastic Style' , late 3rd century BC, found in Oxfordshire. This was the first (and possibly only) example of the Plastic Style to be found in Britain. A metallurgical analysis has proven that it was also made there. It contains the earliest example of the 'British trumpet' motif, explaining its evolution, has the world's first example of oblique anamorphosis and is the only example of that effect in 3D. It also explains the path that British Celtic art took after the atelier of the immigrant central European smith ceased operation and the technology was lost: from high-relief repoussé with chased "simulated 3d" decoration to the ultimate 'Mirror Style'.  In my collection. (image: Public Domain)
Last week, a friend of more than forty years was in town so we got together for a couple of meals. I brought along a couple of the "stars" from my collection to show her. Whenever I show anyone the sword pommel illustrated above, they always ask "How much is is worth?" and I have to explain that any value is speculative until established through (usually) and auction sale. As value is based on supply and demand, pieces that are completely unique are difficult to value. There is no problem on the supply side: the object is unique. The difficulty lies on the demand side. Obviously, there can have been no demand for the object before it was known to exist, so that side of the matter is mainly decided by the popularity of the type and quality of the object and the popularity of the culture to which it belongs.

There is another term used in art sales that has a dramatic effect on the value of anything sold at auction, and that is "important". When you see this designation it means (or should mean) that the object shows quite a bit about the development of the art or the artist. A lesser-used term for anything below that status is "good". That term means that it is a typical example in its design and is of high quality. Paul Cézanne is best known for his landscape, portrait and still-life paintings. Were a painting by him of his neighbour's dog to show up, it would fetch far less than anything in those other categories because we do not associate that subject with Cézanne. Sure, it might be unique as an object but art collectors far prefer something representative of the art or the artist. Rarity can still add considerable value, for example there are a lot of late paintings by Picasso and the name, alone is going to guarantee a high price, but anything that is sold from his "blue period" is going to get an astronomical price. Not only are such paintings much rarer, that period was important in his development and enjoys a lot of fame as well.

I am fortunate with my sword pommel because the Plastic Style is extremely rare; very popular; and highly important. On the down-side, most people would like to own something of it that would have been made in its homeland (Bavaria, Germany to the Czech Republic). A British buyer, though, would be very interested because is was made in Britain and is so important to the development of British art.

There is a snag there, too. Were I to offer it for sale in Britain, a foreign buyer would have little chance of getting an export permit for it. I did not even think it would get an export permit when I bought it from there, but the British Museum goofed by taking the dealer's misattribution at face vale and by failing to recognize the style. When Ian Stead, a former keeper at the British Museum first saw the photographs of it, he said "When I was at the British Museum, I would never have given it an export permit!" But Ian Stead is one of the few major world-class authorities on early Celtic art and  is very familiar with the continental styles as well as the British.

In the case of coins, things can get very strange, indeed: You would have no problem finding an ancient copper alloy coin in nice condition that was previously unknown for well under a thousand dollars. That is because new types are showing up all the time and there were an awful lot of types of ancient coins. However, one US 1943-S copper Lincoln Wheat Penny sold for a million dollars and others have fetched more than $100,000. It all boils down to supply and demand. Although it sounds like an oxymoron, unique ancient coins are quite common.

If there were as many collectors of early Celtic art as there were of wheat pennies, I could become very rich, indeed. The problem there is there are orders of magnitude more collectors of wheat pennies than examples of early Celtic art! I don' t get to buy Celtic antiquities that often. Fortunately, few collectors and dealers have a library like mine and thus do not recognize good things when they show up, so I get quite a few bargains over the years. Sadly for those others, too, there are a lot of things sold as Celtic that are not Celtic at all. Buy the books before you buy the objects, even though that is going to cost you more than $2,000!

More tomorrow.

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