COLLECTING ANCIENT GLASS
by RICHARD BROCKWAY
With LYNETTE MACLEOD
People think the place to see and admire ancient Roman, Greek, Egyptian or Phoenician glass is in one of the great museums. In fact, Ancient Glass is available and undervalued. A caveat: to delve into its ancient history, let alone the plunder and international intrigue, prepare to become addicted. Study in out of way places and prepare for questions: what intrigued you first, where did you find it, do you know it’s real, is it expensive, why so cheap? A 2000 year old intact unique work of art is always a wonder to people who have seen 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. Fortunately, my corporate career allowed for much travel in Italy, France, England, Persia and Japan granting me time to visit all 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.
When I started to do antique shows, I was unique in specializing in antiquities. People would actually ask if the items on display were for sale. Then the questions would begin. My time at these shows became almost non-stop lectures on the history and origins of the piece rather than trying to sell something. With reference books, catalogues, and museum brochures, the shows became more enjoyable, not work at all. In the process of establishing ancient art in antique shows, I used publicity to attract the antiquity aficionado who normally wouldn’t attend a conventional show. This effort of love paid off. I attracted customers for antiquities, including many who had never purchased a work of ancient art. Some auction houses and dealers credit me with starting good customers. I’m pleased to say my several thousand customers worldwide are more friends than business acquaintances.
Since this article is intended to introduce potential collectors to the universe of collecting Ancient Glass, I will spend a little time on fundamentals. I’ve given many lectures on Ancient Glass ranging from scholarly to my basic “Collecting Ancient Glass - what to look for and what to look out for!” at glass collecting clubs, which normally don’t consider this old subject matter. A collector of, say, Tiffany, Galle’, or depression glass is a candidate for delving into Ancient Glass since so many references start chronologically with ancient Phoenician glass.
When developing a new interest, it’s best to read a lot, study pictures, and visit museums. Visits to reliable dealers and antique shows are especially important for “hands on” education. When it comes time to make one’s own first purchase, it’s not necessary to splurge for a masterpiece. With my first boat, I bought a good used, inexpensive example to learn with, which could be easy to unload or upgrade depending on how my interest progressed.
The importance of dealing with a “reputable” dealer! I mean one who has been in business for some time, has considerable specific experience (not antique honey pots, for example), offers an unconditional money back guaranty of authenticity in writing! In this field where authenticity and condition are everything, I recommend against the internet.
Since authenticity is primary, Ancient Glass is rewarding as discerning a real from a fake is very easy and you can become quite proficient in a relatively short time. 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, particularly in Israel, chemicals are used to add patina to a fake. Real patina is an oxidation which we call iridescence that can only occur over a very long time (i.e. 2000 years) and is a degradation of the glass surface. It requires impurities and chemicals in the soil. In the extreme, glass would
dissolve away to nothing. The ersatz patina, although pretty, is very obviously not the real thing. It looks chemical! Tiffany tried in vain to imitate ancient patina and succeeded in making attractive art objects but not close to the real glow.
Condition is extremely important in establishing value in glass collecting. Although since Ancient Glass is one of a kind, sometimes the only example in the world – such as the Portland Vase in the Boston Museum- will be repaired. See the photo in the winter-spring 2009 Antiques & Art Around Florida, p. 29, for description of the Portland Vase and why real Ancient Glass is the only way to go.
I personally stay away from any glass with repair unless it’s a rare example to flesh out my collection or I just can’t afford an intact example. It’s easy to spot repair in Ancient Glass with the use of a good light source or a blue light. A fiber optic probe is indispensable to easily spot a repair. A patch of dirt smeared on the side of a brilliant vessel is a dead giveaway.
We need to spend a little time on the history because it’s the age and story of Ancient Glass that makes it so captivating. There are many areas of beauty in art, but it is the history of the civilizations, geography and glass technology that set this area of the collecting world apart.