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Sunday May 7, 2006

Old works on new walls

Is your resolutely-modern home in sore need of something decorative? Why buy the usual cubist sculpture or abstract painting when you can opt for an ancient artefact and own a piece of history too? KEE HUA CHEE offers a guide to old and treasured works. 

The Roman marble fragment
BUYING ancient treasures today is fraught with risks. Apart from fakes or stolen goods, many ancient artworks have been smuggled from archaeological sites and are being claimed by various governments. So if you dread the knock on your door in the dead of night by the Interpol, make sure you buy from legit sources, like Rupert Wace Gallery at Old Bond Street, London. 

Art dealer Rupert Wace is one of the few purveyors who can prove the provenance of his wares. He is chairman of the Antiquities Dealers Association of United Kingdom and board member of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art. And his gallery has some enticing treasures. 

Ancient Egyptian art is perennially popular, especially those from the Old Kingdom (2500BCE) to the late Dynastic Period (664-332BCE). The rarest find is an exquisite blue faience of the goddess Isis, kneeling with winged arms stretched in a protective gesture. 

This amulet would have been sewn into linen mummy bandages with the wings placed across the chest to protect the deceased during his hazardous afterlife journey. Winged pectorals are very rare; this find is even more unique as it is polychromatic. It was acquired by a British collector in the 1920s and has remained in his family till now. Well, you can frame and hang this RM150,000 amulet on your wall, or wear it as pendant. 

Greek helmet and bronze
A dreary corner in your condo or living room can be enlivened with a large (50cm) bronze and wood ibis circa 664BCE. The ibis was the physical manifestation of Thoth, the moon god and keeper of knowledge. A great number of such birds were made, but most of them were of poor quality. This handsome bird has great visual impact and perfect proportions with bronze tail feathers and finely carved legs to show scales and leathery skin. Its size is reflected in its price – RM760,000. 

One piece that’s bound to strike visitors to your home is an alabaster container with two halves shaped in the form of a plucked, dressed and featherless duck! It would have contained an actual, cooked duck as an offering to the gods or as a presentation at an important feast for a pharaoh. 

Such a fancy vessel was worthy of a high personage as most food would be served on open, ordinary plates. Dating from the Middle Kingdom, this 3,000-year-old artefacts costs RM300,000 – but at least you can still use it to serve Beijing duck! 

Another functional item is a 6th century Greek amphora by the so-called Antimenes Painter, the most acclaimed of Athenian artists, named after an inscription praising the youth Antimenes on another vase in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Painter’s trademark black figures carry decorated shields and wear crested helmets. Fans of Troy would like it: scenes on the vase depict the Trojan War; one shows Priam biding farewell to his handsome young warrior son. This vase costs RM760,000. 

Yet another piece that will stop your guests in their tracks is a 2,000-year-old Greek helmet that’s suggestive of male genitalia! The dome of the helmet is clearly shaped like a penis, and the ear flaps are designed as testicles. Even the decorative piece on the forehead is in the form of an erotic snakehead! Priced at RM266,000, this helmet will make the perfect accessory at any costume party. 

The modern boardroom warrior can hero-worship Hercules (or Herakles). This third century BCE Etruscan bronze statuette shows the hero as a muscular, naked young man wielding the remains of his club. At RM250,000 it will remind everyone who’s boss. 

Theatre buffs, critics and practitioners will go ga-ga over a second century CE Roman marble fragment showing two theatre masks – of a laughing and a crying face. Another mask-like limestone pillar is from the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Dating from the fourth century BCE, it is from the Saba or Qataban kingdom in present-day Yemen. The triangular face looks strangely modern and will blend in with décor from any era. Both items carry the same price tag – RM133,000. 

Wood ibis.
Not all the pieces at Rupert Wace threaten to rip your wallet. The gallery has a 17cm wedjat or good luck charm from ancient Egypt priced at only RM10,000. This obsidian amulet or “the eye of Horus” is from the Late Dynastic Period. 

There is a Romano-Celtic hippocamp (half fish and half horse) that could have come straight from a Harry Potter movie, going for RM 24,000. The most fascinating among the Roman pieces is a 1,800-year-old bronze key used by ancient VIPs to open, of all things, the door of a brothel! 


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