Auction house specializes in antiquities


November 11, 1990|By Lita Solis-Cohen

There is an intellectual aspect to collecting ancient art. It requires study, research and knowledge. Half a dozen dealers in antiquities in New York have over the past decade expanded this market considerably and educated a larger audience.

Auctions may not be the best avenue for buying and selling antiquities, but antiquities auctions are public events and they have called attention to the fact that items from the ancient world are for sale and are not just in museums. Antiquities are accessible, and they are being bought for decoration and/or contemplation.

Most recently Hesperia Arts Auction Ltd., a new auction company, has been launched to sell only antiquities. Its first sale, consisting of 300 lots of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Etruscan art worth more than $10 million, will be held on Nov. 27 at the Park Lane Hotel in New York.

"The objects are among the finest antiquities ever offered at auction; certainly they are the equivalent of those in the Hunt sale that brought $11 million at Sotheby's in June," said Jonathan Rosen, a partner with Bruce McNall in Hesperia Arts and a businessman and antiquities collector.

Mr. McNall, 40, is known as the man with the Midas touch. He bought the Los Angeles Kings two years ago and induced superstar Wayne Gretzky to play for him, tripling the value of the franchise, according to his publicist. Some weeks ago a horse from his Summa Stables won the Arlington Million, and his movie company, Gladden Entertainment, produced "The Fabulous Baker Boys" which was nominated for an Oscar.

Mr. McNall is not a newcomer to the world of auctions. He owns the largest coin auction company in the world, Numismatic Fine Arts International (NFAI), headquartered in Los Angeles and specializing in ancient coins.

Three years ago Mr. McNall began the Athena II Fund, a $25 million limited partnership in conjunction with Merrill Lynch for investment in ancient coins and antiquities. At about the same time Jonathan Rosen opened the Atlantis Gallery in New York, dealing in antiquities from an exhibition space on the ground floor of his Manhattan town house.

The Athena Fund and the Atlantis Gallery are two of the four major consignors to Hesperia Arts' first sale; so the auctioneers and the consignors are in some cases one and the same.

"We have been reaching out to expand the market for antiquities and more and more people are finding antiquities an alternative to collecting contemporary and modern art," comments Mr. Rosen.

Mr. Rosen says he sees the need for a specialty auction of antiquities in order to move them from the back burner where they currently simmer at the international auction houses. "Antiquities aren't big money makers like paintings and jewelry," Mr. Rosen notes. "Christie's doesn't even have an antiquities expert in New York; they hold their antiquities sales in London. Sotheby's schedules only two sales a year."

On the Hesperia Arts expert team are Robert E. Hecht Jr., an international antiquities dealer, and Jasper Gaunt, an Oxford University classics scholar. The auctioneer is Robert J. Meyers, a photographer and dealer in ancient coins and ancient art since the 1970s and also NFAI's auctioneer.

The Hesperia partners are bullish about the market for antiquities. "With the dollar worth 30 percent less than it was worth a year ago, our European clients will seize the opportunity to buy some extraordinary material," said Steve Rubinger, director of NFAI, and a spokesman for Mr. McNall.

Among the jewelry, gems, vases, marble sculpture and reliefs, terra cottas, frescoes, mosaics and bronze sculpture is an archaic Greek mirror, circa 490-480 B.C., estimated to bring between $750,000 to $1 million; its handle is in the form of a dancing maiden, with castanets in her hand.

A funerary plaque with Jewish symbols, from the second or third century, is similar to other pieces found in the Catacomb of Randanini in Rome and is estimated to bring $100,000 to $125,000.

The oldest object in the auction is an Anatolian idol not quite 5 inches tall, dated in the third millennium B.C. It has been valued between $75,000 and $100,000. A tiny terra cotta statuette from Myrina, circa 200 to 100 B.C., in the form of a recumbent woman with a removable womb and baby, is estimated to bring $18,500 to $28,000.

The two-volume illustrated catalog for the sale is available for $35 postpaid from Hesperia Arts, 29 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019.

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