Affordable Antiquities: For less than $200 collectors are buying 2,000 years of human history

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Samaritan oil lamp, 4th century A.D. found in Israel. length: 10 cm, $250. Courtesy of Trionfo Jerusalem

by Melody Amsel-Arielli

Collectors often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on rare, museum-quality antiquities. Small, abundantly found pieces, however, are often very affordable. For example, coins unearthed in the Holy Land, which date from the Persian through the Ottoman Period (circa 500 B.C.-1700 A.D.), may start at just $50 apiece.

“Older is not necessarily more expensive,” observes Avraham Madeisker, specialist in Judaica and Holy Land antiquities at Trionfo-Jerusalem. “Provenance, condition and rarity usually determine the cost of ancient coins.” Currently an authentic Roman Nero silver tetradrachm, a bronze Judaea Capta or a Roman procurator Pontius Pilatus coin can be found for under $300. At Trionfo, unusual coins of any era however, like those featuring images of women — usually queens, wives of leaders, or female emissaries — may fetch between $300 and $500 apiece.

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Some collectors prefer their coins to be cleaned, with images clearly visible. Others, more drawn to their archeological value, prefer coins that are sold as they were found. Many of these boast patinas, the tarnish that may develop on metal surfaces through age, wear, and the soil it which it was preserved. “Different place, different patina,” explains Madeisker, “But it’s a question of personal taste. Although greens, reds, and yellows are tempting, I love coins with black patinas best.”

Measuring 1 5/8 inches long, this incomplete Byzantine carved bone hair pin, circa 2nd century A.D., has a rounded form with incised double concentric circles. It’s priced at just $100 at Sands of Time Ancient Art.

In addition to coins, history enthusiasts may be charmed by other antiquities that were actually in use. Trionfo’s collection of terra cotta oil lamps, for example, which illuminated Samaritan, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader or Islamic hearths, cost up to several hundred dollars each, depending on embellishment, condition and rarity.

In ancient times, like today, a man’s signature was his proof of identity and intention. Trionfo offers handles of Near Eastern terracotta jugs that are stamped with identifying seals. For $300, they also offer utilitarian bread seals, with which Roman families marked their loaves of bread in communal ovens.

Steatite (soapstone) Egyptian scarabs, amulets fashioned like sacred, rounded dung beetles, are also very collectible. Those with intaglios incised into their flat, reverse sides were not always carried about. Many, attached to rings or pierced and strung around the neck, were also worn as jewelry. Pressed into clay tablets, these under-inch miniatures served as personal seals, designating the property and authority of their owners. A simple scarab may cost well under $100. Those that feature especially fine work or unusual motifs, like palmettos or figurals, generally command slightly more.

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Military buffs may find a Greek mace head, which commands between $150 and $500, captivating. Others may prefer collecting Greek-era lead-sling bullets, some laboriously carved with beetles, tridents, or inscriptions like “fly with God’s help” or “hit the target.” Most range between $50 and $100. Devices that protected Roman archers’ fingers, which sell for up to $50 each, may also be of interest. Stone hand grenades, which Muslims packed with fearsome cocktails of naphtha, nitre, and sulfur, then lobbed at Crusader foes, sell for $600.

Southern Italian Greek gold earrings, $900. Courtesy of Medusa Art

“Some enthusiasts,” observes Madeisker, “prefer smooth, unused military artifacts. Others value those that bear the scars of battle.”

Along with their weaponry,  troops often carried other items into war. Medical artifacts, including diminutive copper spoons, spatulas, probes and ear cleaners that date from the Roman occupation of Palestine, currently sell for about $50-$120 apiece.

Egyptian Steatite Scarab, length: 1.6 cm., $120. Courtesy of Trionfo Jerusalem

“Amulets, small objects believed to offer their owners protection or bring them good luck, may also be attractive,” explains Allan Anawati, antiquities expert and dealer at  Medusa Ancient Art, Inc. “Although amulets, due to their fine work and materials, can easily cost thousands, we offer a light green Egyptian baboon amulet, representing the sacred god Thoth, for example, for $495, and a Near Eastern calcite lion amulet for $650. Collectors seeking other small, unusual pieces may find our Mesopotamian agate ‘sleeping’  duck, one of the most common shapes of Near Eastern weights, which is priced at $425, just as appealing.

Terra cotta artifacts, depending on rarity and condition, may be affordable as well. Medusa-Art.com offers a Syrian animal, with a short tail, short, flattened nose, and raised horns for $600. The shop also offers an orange-brown, Roman ribbed jug, likely used for oil or water, in the same price range.

Because it is impervious to the ravages of time, ancient glass has also survived. Medusa’s Egyptian turquoise glass eye amulet, for example, goes at $600, and a trio of Roman trail-decorated, dark-blue and green, triangular glass bracelets, still intact, are a buy at $325.

Anawati has found that those collectors who are drawn to pieces of ancient jewelry are often attracted not only by their beauty, but also by their poignancy — these pieces once adorned the living. “In antiquity, people wore rings, earrings, necklaces, pendants, hair rings and finger rings far more often than they do today,” he adds, “so it’s no wonder that many were preserved in ancient tombs.”

Black Mesopotamian duck weight, with head turned to rest along its back, $625. Courtesy of Medusa Art

His fragmented turquoise Egyptian ring, which features a  protective Wedjat Eye, sells for $495. A pair of boat-shaped Greek gold earrings, decorated with filigree and set with glass inlays, sells for $900.

Medusa-Art.com also offers a pair of Roman plain hoop gold rings set with glass inlay “jewels,” a common combination, for around $400. Roman carnelian, crystal, jasper or bronze intaglio rings, depending on the level of detail, begin in the same price range.

Sands of Time Antiquities, which is based in Washington D.C., also offers a selection of ancient jewelry at enticing prices. For a few hundred dollars, collectors can own an orange Mesopotamian carnelian bead or a duo of Roman faience beads, which, with their ribbed designs, resemble melons. For $165, a buyer can even acquire a finely glazed earth-tone bead necklace that once graced an actual Egyptian mummy.

“Collectors who value archeological significance generally seek pieces remaining in the condition in which they were found. Those who collect jewelry as art, however, often prefer pieces that are not only appealing, but wearable. Why would anyone buy expensive modern jewelry,” Anawati said, “when you can get such incredible baubles from antiquity?”

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