The London market for Egyptian antiquities, that obscure specialty marked by artifacts of the afterlife, is hitting a new high. London dealers like Rupert Wace and James Ede report record sales. "Right now, a stunning 40 percent of my sales are Egyptian antiquities compared to only 25 percent a mere six years ago," says Ede from his Mayfair gallery, which also stocks fine Greek vases.
Why the sudden profusion of sales? Prices are going up at double the rate of inflation, according to Ede, whose Charles Ede gallery is named for his father, a highly regarded expert.
How high can prices soar? Six years ago Ede sold an exquisite Ptolemaic relief for a mere $16,000. Then last year, the piece resurfaced at Sotheby's New York, where it hit $211,500, a stunning 13 times its original price. The buyer reportedly later sold the piece to the underbidder at a profit. Those kind of stories make art buffs scour the antiquities field.
Piquing further interest is a flurry of exhibitions. The British Museum has mounted "Cracking the Code: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment," while in Paris, the Grand Palais presented "L'Art Egyptienne autant Temps Pyramides." After drawing record crowds in Paris, "Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids" opens at the Metropolitan Museum on Sept. 16.
The recent archeological find at Bahariya, southwest of Cairo, of a spectacular number of mummies from Roman times can only reinforce the lure of Egyptian antiquities. And international tourism is up along the Nile a staggering 52 percent, according to the Egyptian Tourist Authority in New York.
Then there's the millennium factor. "With the 20th century ending, Egyptian artifacts inspire great reverence," says Wace, whose Old Bond Street gallery, Rupert Wace Ancient Art, is packed with quartzite and stone sculptures of gods and goddesses dating from the Old and New Kingdoms along with classical antiquities, both Greek and Roman.
Such fare has a global market, needless to say. Wace plans to show at next year's tony Winter Antiques Show in New York as well as at the Maastricht Old Masters fair in March, and he hits TEFAF in Basel as well. "We go where the clients are," says Wace. As for Ede, he showed at Grosvenor House for the first time this June. Proof of this craze for ancient art is demonstrated by his weighty Grosvenor House sales.
Among the top tier artifacts Ede touts is a delicate two-handled glass flask from 1400 BC for $40,000. "New Kingdom glass is especially prized," he says. Also on hand at Ede is a quartzite head of an Egyptian goddess from the 18th Dynasty -- that's 1350 BC -- for $95,000.
Wace carries a spectacular gilt bronze ibis from the 26th Dynasty (1017-712 BC). The Egyptians considered the bird the incarnation of the god Thoth, inventor of hieroglyphic writing, and a great messenger. The work's provenance is unquestioned; the piece comes from an important English collection formed in the 1920s. Plus, there's a similar ibis in the Brooklyn Museum. The price? A respectable $48,000.
Wace also has somewhat less precious items, such as a stone figure of the goddess Maat, also from the 26th Dynasty, for under $10,000. The goddess Maat personified truth and the divine order; in the hall of judgment, the heart of the deceased was placed on the scales of justice balanced against the feather of Maat, symbol of truth.
Who's buying the clutches of Egyptian gods and goddesses, sarcophagi and amulets? Ordinary folks, say dealers. "Coal miners from Durham, Oxford students and executives too," replies Ede. Contemporary art dealers and collectors are the latest entrants to the field.
A growing number of such collectors are bidding up examples at auction. One of the largest growing segments of that audience is Americans. Christie's antiquities specialist Sarah Hornsby says Americans now make up one third of her client list.
When it comes to investibles from the Pharaohs' reigns, those items under $10,000 seem certain to increase in value, experts say. As always in the art market, aim for the best. Skip the marginal, poorly incised and weathered sculpture. Also steer clear of poorly repaired works. "A great deal of tomb sculpture like the shabti funerary figures in mummy form with arms crossed holding a hoe and a pick was mass-produced, so exceptional examples are in great demand," says Hornsby from her South Kensington office.
Prices are strong for key artifacts. For example, at Hornsby's April auction, a granite foundation stone of Seti I from the 19th Dynasty brought $22,950, or considerably more than double its estimate. Yet, Hornsby says the top tier pieces, those in the hefty six-figure range, can only be found at dealers.
But fakes are prevalent. Just as forgers grow in number, detection techniques are improving. "Forty percent of what I see are impostors," says Ede, who reports that workshops producing fakes can be found throughout Italy and the Near East. "With 25 years in the trade, I'm rarely taken in by fraudulent works."
Still, if you dearly desire a memento from ancient times, consider an Early Christian terracotta oil lamp at Charles Ede's. "It's the 15 watt bulb of its day," says Ede. Better yet, such examples from Syria and the Levant cost only $50.
Newcomers to this collecting area could start their studies with The Scepter of Egypt by Robert Hayes (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1953, two volumes, $25 per volume); Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, edited by Francesco Tiradritti (Abrams 1999, $75); and Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids by Dorothea Arnold, Catharine H. Roehrig, et al. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 1999, $90). Note that the last two books are available in Sept.