Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Joys (and Sorrows) of Finding Those Hidden Gems

I felt like such a fool. We were pressed for time, though, if that's any kind of excuse. And, of course, a good deal of greed played into it. Even as I paid the thrift store attendant a few hundred dollars for what I suspected was a drawing I could resell for thousands, I had pangs of guilt. "Should I come back and pay him more if this turns out to be what I think it is?" I thought. "Nah..." said the mini-me with horns and a pitchfork over my left shoulder. "You spotted deserve to profit from it."

Long story short, I was wrong. It was by the artist I thought it was, but it wasn't worth thousands, and, as it turned out, I had no reason at all to feel guilty about what I paid. But in the end, just the thrill of thinking I had found some hidden gem was worth the uncovering the Pollock at the garage sale, or the old story of the 11th-century rock crystal ewer mis-categorized (and mis-priced) at auction...or the Rembrandt under the...huh? er, back up...that what? you might ask. Here's the story, via

A rare 11th century rock crystal ewer, misidentified as a 19th Century French claret jug, has sold for 220,000 pounds at auction, more than one thousand times its pre-sale estimate, the Art Newspaper said on Monday.

Experts believe the artefact's real value could be nearer five million pounds, according to the report.

The ewer was sold last Thursday at an auction held by Lawrences Auctioneers of Crewkerne, Somerset.

Lot 424 is catalogued as: "A French claret jug: The rock crystal body carved with animals, the silver gilt mounts with enamelled decoration, 19th century, 30 cm. (cracked and damaged). In fitted box of Morel a Sevres. 100-200 pounds".

But experts believe it is a rock crystal ewer from the Fatimid dynasty which ruled parts of northern Africa and the Middle East in the 10th-12th centuries.

Only five examples were previously known to have existed.
OK, so someone should have suspected something was up when an object valued at 100 to 200 pounds broke the 100,000 pound mark, surely. The report quoted above, in the British Newspaper, The Mirror, notes that the story broke in The Art Newspaper, but
The Art Newspaper did not say who had valued the ewer at up to five million pounds,
More pressing to me is who at the auction house valued it at only 100-200 pounds? But I guess even the dealers in this area are not all that familiar with these objects:
One dealer, who described the crystal ewer as a "Holy Grail" of Islamic art, recounted how he had looked at the item but failed to identify the ewer from the auctioneer's online catalogue.
There are fabulous stories associated with these objects, by the way:
Al Maqrizi, the Egyptian writer who chronicled the history of the Ismaili Fatimid Caliphate in the early 15th century, recorded eye witness reports of a large number of rock crystal artefacts in the Fatimid royal treasury in Cairo which was looted by mutinous troops in 1067-68. However, under Saladin, the Sunni Ayyubid ruler who conquered Egypt and succeeded the Fatimid Caliphs in 1171, a wave of iconoclasm saw these beautiful objects with their animal motifs destroyed en masse, thus ensuring their great rarity.

The ewers and other vessels which did survive were thought to have been carried back to Europe from the Holy Land by crusaders and ended up being used as reliquaries in churches.
But my favorite part of the story...because it's early, I'm uncaffienated, and I'm simply mean that way...was this tidbit:
Art Newspaper said that apart from the ewer bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the others remain in ecclesiastical collections. Another was dropped by an employee of the Museo degli Argenti in Florence in 1998 and shattered irreparably.
The only person less happy than that Florentine museum employee must be the Somerset auction house appraiser, I'd wager.

Labels: antiquities, art auctions


Anonymous Anonymous said... uncovering the Pollack at the garage sale

Um...Pollock. (Sorry, I hate it when people correct my spelling, but my prose is better for it.)

1/23/2008 09:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a printmaking teacher at SUNY Purchase in the late eighties who had found a small Rembrandt painting at an antique store. I was visiting her house and she showed it to me. She made a habit of scouring antique stores for unrecognized treasures. She said she recognized the painting because of the brushstrokes. It was really a small sketch and not a finished work.


1/23/2008 09:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


Grrrr....I actually had it correct the first time, looked at it, thought "that looks wrong," and changed it...I can't wait until the cat spellings become standard.

1/23/2008 10:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what are the cat spellings?

1/23/2008 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

make sure you douse yourself in cute repellent before clicking through:

i can has cheezburger

1/23/2008 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear, I found a Warhol, Rauchemberg (? you know who I mean..) Schnabel, Matta, others and others and a lot of frogs that I french kissed but did not turn into princes. The hunt, the idea of again finding a treasure, is a high.

Furthermore, as a collector of contemporary art (25) and after 20 years of visiting flea markets and thrift shops around the world I know what is going to end up there. Yes, in the flea markets, most destroyed, neglected because they are not good enough. You might find something and rescue it but in that case it is a matter of your "taste", of liking something but with no historical or future monetary value.

1/23/2008 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Isn't a ewer a male sheep?

1/23/2008 02:51:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

More on topic, though: My neighbor, an older woman, left a big stack of stuff for the garbagemen. Something caught my eye so I went through it and found a bunch of toys that just pre-dated my own childhood -- a microscope kit, Gumby tracing set, a pile of slot-car track, and so on. A whole bunch of stuff. Against my wife's objections -- she has a policy of locking me out of the house when I bring more crap home (luckily she was out) -- I brought it in, looked it all up on eBay, photographed it and put it all up. In the end I netted about a hundred bucks, saved some stuff from the landfill (at least temporarily) and hopefully made some collector happy.

When I saw the lady again I told her what I'd done and offered to split it with her. She told me to keep and buy my kids something nice. Very gracious of her, I thought.

1/23/2008 02:57:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

For a time in the early 1990s, Mr. Mugrabi teamed with collector Sammy Ofer, a collector Romanian shipping magnate who provided capital. In 1992, he hired Alberto, then 22 and a college graduate, to troll the backrooms of New York galleries for Warhols. "Nobody else wanted them, so we'd clean them out," Alberto says.



1/23/2008 03:38:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Returning full circle to a version of the market first proposed by Adam Smith when he used theology and aesthetics to rethink economics, Confidence Games closes with a plea for a conception of life that embraces uncertainty and insecurity as signs of the openness of the future. Like religion and economics, life is a confidence game in which the challenge is not to find redemption but to learn to live without it.">3


1/23/2008 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

that's a nice story chris
call me next time when she'll come out to drop some more bags :)

1/23/2008 05:36:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I'll also call if I find something heavy so you can help carry it.

1/23/2008 11:57:00 PM  
OpenID madsilence said...

Ed, I'm a silent fan of your blog, but couldn't pass up the chance to comment on this post. That you should suffer "pangs of guilt" over purchasing a potential treasure at a thrift store is a good thing and says much about your character. Of course, if the drawing was indeed valuable, I’m not sure I would’ve had the guts to share the largesse with the thrift. Would you?

It’s easy to lose our way in the world of art & antiques which, obviously, is all about things, objects, STUFF. Stuff that has no inherent value except in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless, when I saw the pictures of that “19th Century French claret jug” I was astounded that no one recognized the Islamic gilding & enameling on the crystal. What idiots! I would’ve mortgaged my house… I mean, I would’ve immediately pointed out the mistake to the auction house.


1/25/2008 07:43:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Of course, if the drawing was indeed valuable, I’m not sure I would’ve had the guts to share the largesse with the thrift. Would you?

I may never know, Mad Silence. I like to think I'd go back or mail a check or something, but I think the odds I'd simply get wrapped up in the idea that somehow I'd earned it might have won out. Bottom line, though, the fact that I was mistaken was a good wake up call.

Thanks for the kind words.


1/25/2008 08:31:00 PM  

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