Educational Resources on the Ancient Mediterranean World


An ancient artifact at MY home ??

And why not? Buying or offering a first ancient item is something else than just a box of chocolates, a CD or a video game, but is not necessarily more expensive.

"Yes, but you need to know about it", I am often told. Well, we'll give you here some tips, but a good dealer of antiquities or ancient coins will always be happy to help you, even if finally you do not buy anything from him. Passionate people are always glad to share their knowledge. And so are we (here is the evidence)!

Your first purchase will usually be a "love at first sight": you’ll love an artifact because it means something to you, almost "calls for you": a small very typical pot as a memory of a Greek island, a coin of the Roman Empire wearing somebody’s name (if you know someone called Alexander, Hadrian, Sabine...). An animal on a coin (a bull, an owl...). A fibula, an oil lamp, an amulet. Or maybe it’s an unexpected encounter: you collect feeding bottles or gaming dices, you just wish an ancient one, that’s all.

By chance, a very typical artifact is necessarily common, and therefore less expensive than a rare one. Don’t get impressed by the vocabulary used by dealers: ask them to explain clearly, and they will. For example, a coin will be quoted F, VF or XF ? This means simply Fine, Very Fine, Extra Fine, but in common words "ordinary ", "nice" or "very beautiful".
Besides coins, here are a few types of affordable artifacts. To know more about them:
Download our guide

Lampes à huile romaines  Verrerie romaine
Lampes et poterie d'Afrique du Nord
Céramique grecque
Amulettes égyptiennes     Scarabées égyptiens
Poterie de Terre-Sainte
Some basic advice    
This article was written by our partner
Dr. Bron Lipkin, a collector for nearly 40 years,
now also a dealer and member of ADA (Antiquities Dealers Association)
and owner the site:
which apart from offering a wide selection of antiquities for sale, offers much advice for collectors
and concerns itself with the identification of fakes particularly.

This section is for new collectors, just starting off, or for those who are not collectors as such but interested in ancient history and might like to acquire just one or two ancient artefacts.

Most people are surprised when they discover that antiquities thousands of years old can be acquired for not a great deal of money at all.

There are millions of ancient artefacts on the market, which have been going in and out of collections for hundreds of years.

Older collections are always being broken up and dispersed, usually through auction houses. Private collections have formed the beginings of the collections of most museums. We owe these collectors gratitude for the contribution they made towards the formation of some of the world’s greatest museums. There are still many private collectors and benefactors who provide funding for museums without which many could not survive.

Some people argue that all antiquities should only be kept in museums, but in reality a great many antiquities are really rather ordinary objects of little interest or value to a museum or an academic archaeologist. Other people argue that a great number of antiquities have been looted and should not be bought and sold on the open market. Some extremists oppose the whole idea of private collecting of ancient artefacts at all. It is sadly true that some antiquities have been obtained illicitly and illegally and one must be careful to watch out for this possibility. However, if pieces are bought from a reputable dealer an acceptable lineage of ownership should be guaranteed. (See the issue of provenance below)

Whereas much publicity is given to rare and wonderful artefacts acquired by museums and very wealthy collectors, there is a great abundance of more ordinary artefacts on the market, such pieces not being the type of artefact which museums want to hold. They usually have countless examples of such things in their stores and such things are not often even on public display.

Though these rather mundane artefacts often cost not much money they can nevertheless be extremely interesting and attractive and, as most collectors appreciate, can give one a sense of immediate contact with peoples and cultures long since gone. This is one of the wonderful aspects of ancient artefacts appreciated by most collectors. Not only do they provide a tangible link to the past but they stimulate an interest in the past, in ancient history itself and the development of various types of manufacturing technology. To be able actually to hold in your own hands the products of ancient artisans brings the past to life in a way that reading books and visiting museums cannot do.Even fairly amateur research into the variety of any particular type of artefact, the ancient technology involved with its manufacture, its ancient purpose and use and its historical perspective and context will greatly enhance one’s appreciation of ancient things.

Where to buy    

eBay is certainly not a good place for newcomers to ancient artefacts to acquire their first pieces! The situation is marginally better than it used to be but eBay is still full of outrageous fakes, heavily restored antiquities and pieces completely incorrectly described. Inventive and totally made up information has appeared on eBay and having been widely copied by other eBay sellers has contributed to misinformation amongst new collectors. There are all the same, a few good and reliable antiquities dealers selling on eBay from time to time; the problem the newbie has is in knowing which of the many sellers they are! There is actually a website(1) which has an information forum dedicated to these purveyors of fakes

There are many online antiquities dealers some with actual galleries some without. A recommendation from another collector is often the best sort of recommendation one can get. Alternatively choose a dealer who is a member of a professional trade organisation. Nearly all reputable dealers belong to one or both of the internationally recognised antiquities trade associations: the Antiquities Dealers Association (ADA) (2) or the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA) (3). Do not confuse these organizations which have strict criteria of admission with the similar sounding Association of International antiquities Dealers, the IAAD, which is a different type of organisation with a much lower threshold of admission to membership.

I strongly recommend asking questions of dealers. Ask about repair and restoration because many ancient artefacts have been repaired and restored and often in such a way that you would not even know. An experienced dealer or collector will usually be able to see this and a good dealer will always tell you about restoration even if you might not have noticed! Ask about provenance and who has had custodianship of the piece before.

Also ask the dealer about where you can find out more about the type of artefact you are acquiring. Most good dealers have large libraries and will be able to recommend books. I personally very strongly recommend that new collectors buy a book or two about the type of artefact they first buy. There is absolutely nothing that adds interest more to an ancient artefact than knowing more about it and its type; how and where and when it was made, what it was used for. There is great pleasure to be had from researching your pieces and indeed some dealers and collectors have contributed to the field of archaeology by publishing in journals and writing specialist books.

What is provenance?    

Provenance is the term used to describe the history of an archaeological object since it was removed from its resting place in the ground. The terms provenance and provenience are used somewhat confusingly and indeed interchangeably.


- Provenience: The precise location where an artefact or archaeological sample was recovered archaeologically and/or was actually made.
- Provenance: The detailed history of where an artefact has been since its creation or since it was found

Provenance for antiquities is often modest or to be blunt, almost nonexistent such as "from a deceased estate in London", or as many auction houses still rather quaintly put “from a gentleman” but what seems rather banal now might be interesting to a collector in 100 years time, so always keep paperwork associated with an item and pass it on with the item if you decide to part with it.

Do not be surprised that most small inexpensive items have no attached provenance history at all. Such small and basically ordinary and common pieces will have been in and out of collections for years and years and their history of ownership is invariably lost. It is extremely rare that an object will still have its archaeological provenience: that is information about where it was actually found. Often all one can discover is that the dealer bought them from another dealer, a collector or at auction. Sometimes some dealers will not give much detailed information as they understandably want to protect their sources of supply.

About looting    

It has to be admitted that a large number of ancient artefacts are on the market which have been found by illicit methods and sometimes even stolen from known archaeological sites.

Good dealers will be able to tell you about the various laws and international treaties which are aimed at curbing looting and the illegal export of antiquities from various countries. Good dealers will also be open about provenance and give as much information to the buyer as they can.

Today, the Association of Art Museum Directors considers an antiquity legal if it was acquired or bought and exported from the country of origin before 1970, the year UNESCO ratified the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970?

About fakes    

What are often referred to as fakes are more strictly called forgeries. Fakes, strictly speaking are actually genuine ancient artefacts which have been deceptively altered or added to, such as an added inscriptions to enhance the value.

Fakes however is the more commonly accepted term for deliberate deception. There are a very large number of fakes on the market. Many are poorly made and serious collectors and dealers are not deceived for a moment: but the new-comer to collecting very frequently is.

The most popular categories of antiquities are often the most widely faked: Egyptian faience, ushabtis in particular, Greek pottery, Roman lamps and glass. Many of these fakes are easily detected by the experienced, but others are not, and there is no aspect of art, antiques or antiquities which is not prone to faking of some type. Be aware that even very ordinary and inexpensive ancient things are massed produced as replicas and outright fakes.

A good dealer will be happy to tell you why he or she believes the artefact they are selling is genuine and not a fake. Ask about that too. But rather than asking “Are the pieces you sell genuine?” which is a question which can be misinterpreted, ask “can you explain to me as I’m new to this, how I could tell that this piece is genuine and not fake”.

The expertise that comes from many years of handling a large number of artefacts, both genuine and fake and the knowledge that comes from a great deal of reading and visiting museums is often difficult to put into words. But that said, a good dealer should still be able to tell you what to look for in trying to decide whether something of a particular type is genuine or fake. A dealer who is not prepared to offer some helpful comments and pointers is not one I would recommend buying from.

Many “amateur” collectors have made detailed study as they have built up their collections. Their knowledge will often surpass that of a curator in a museum or of most dealers. Indeed, I believe that collectors and dealers are better at spotting fakes than are archaeologists and museum curators.

Many forgers copy and adapt well known and published varieties of ancient artefacts. But often they betray themselves by not paying close enough attention to the details and conventions of ancient craftsmanship as well as not working in the correct material or utilising modern techniques and using modern tools which can leave their distinctive marks. On the other hand, some forgers closely mimic ancient techniques but misunderstand or misinterpret ancient iconography and aesthetics. Still another group of fakes are those that were never meant to deceive. Pieces made during the height of the Egyptomania of the late 19th century, or for the travellers of the 18th century Grand Tour, or in the excitement following the early excavations of Pompeii, Knossos and Troy. These pieces now are indeed antiques but not antiquities.

The most flagrant of deceits is the selling, on eBay particularly of tourist souvenirs made in Egypt.

All dealers and collectors have been fooled by a fake at some time: what distinguishes a good dealer from a bad dealer is how careful and sceptical he or she is in acquiring pieces and how he or she deals with the fact of discovering their mistake. Antiquities cover so many periods and cultures over such vast stretches of time, and so many different materials and styles that no single collector or dealer can hold themselves out as being a real expert other than in some limited areas. A good dealer will research their acquisitions, consulting other fellow dealers, academics in museums and indeed long standing collectors themselves. Antiquities have been forged for several hundreds of years and technology is always improving, so be suspicious of a dealer who cannot explain quite clearly why he or she believes a piece is authentic and never trust a half hearted or defensive response. One fellow dealer friend calls our inevitable mistakes our "tuition fees", as he says, it’s an ironic joke, but it reflects the belief that the professional must accept responsibility for a mistake, not the client...

Remember the truism..."if it seems too good to be true, it probably is"...


Anyone with a computer can print off a fancy certificate, and such pieces of paper can mean nothing at all. I’ve seen many certificates of authenticity created for very obvious fakes. Criminals on the internet rely on selling items with "certificates", which provide no value at all and offer no genuine guarantee of authenticity. Proper guarantees will describe an object in some detail and should also include a photograph of it. If a certificate is not backed by a good professional association, you are relying completely on the seller being honest and knowledgeable and such spurious certificates give you no legal protection at all. Also one should wonder why a dealer would charge additionally for a certificate of authenticity!

What guarantees should I expect from a dealer?    

A good dealer will guarantee the age, type and condition of an ancient piece which they have sold you. This goes further than the guarantees offered by most auction houses. An acceptable guarantee will not have a time limit: avoid the “30 days refund period” guarantees! : a reputable dealer will refund at any time so long as they are still in business.

As well as such guarantees, a good dealer will also allow collectors to return items bought only from photographs (on the internet) if he or she is not entirely happy about the piece: good dealers fully understand that it is often very hard to judge such things from only photographs no matter how good they are. This does not apply to auctions.

Fakes should always be sent back! If you do not return a fake you are unwittingly helping a crook to cheat. Send it back and hope that the seller will also send it back also from whence it came!

If you are not yet confident in your ability to detect fakes, take your pieces to show a reputable dealer or an auctioneer with a dedicated specialist department, or to a museum with the relevant department. Do not email dealers you don’t know at all expecting them to consider pieces for you in any detail: they mostly don’t have the time, but many will find the time to do just this for their known collector customers. That said, some, including myself, actively encourage such contact. Building a long term relationship with someone you trust is one of the best ways to learn about all this. Double-checking your purchases with another specialist is something good dealers will not be offended by. Good dealers have exactly the same concern as serious collectors. In fact a number of dealers are serious and long term collectors themselves.

What to buy    

While it is generally a good idea to acquire a particular type of artefact in as complete and good condition as you can afford at the time, especially if you have any intention of “investment” , that is not to say that partly damaged artefacts in less good condition do not have charm and interest. Very good examples of a particular type of artefact will generally hold their value and very often over the years greatly increase in monetary value, whereas poor broken and restored specimens will not be easy to sell if you ever wanted to do that.

(1) ancientartifakes
(2) ADA