Dirt Cheap? Ancient Relics at Modest Prices, With Big Caveats

Dusty relics of ancient Egypt still seem to hold their power. Last week, after negotiations, the Metropolitan Museum of Art surrendered title on 19 objects from King Tutankhamun’s tomb to the Egyptian government. On Dec. 9, Christie’s puts antiquities dating as far back as 6000 B.C. on the block at suggested bids of up to $5 million.

A handful of objects in the sale, though, can be bought for far, far less. What does a few thousand dollars get you in the antiquities market?

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is parting with a handful of items in that price range and above, to raise money for new acquisitions. Works for sale, including a $5,000 jar painted with a vibrant image of a jumping dog, also come from the collection of Max Palevsky, a cofounder of Intel. And some items have less famous owners but as much history.

The sale’s Lot 19 is circa 1000 B.C., a fragment of a mask that covered a mummy in the New Kingdom period. With its eyes outlined in blue, “it screams Egyptian style,” said Molly Morse Limmer, the head of the antiquities department at Christie’s. Suggested bids start at $8,000. Less expensive is an Egyptian limestone falcon dating back to 664 B.C.-332 B.C from the Boston museum’s collection: the 4-inch-high talisman with traces of the original red-and-black pigment is being auctioned at $2,000 to $3,000.

Why so cheap? “Condition,” said Ms. Limmer. The mummy mask has “been broken and it’s only the upper portion that remains,” plus, it’s “relatively small in scale.” As for that falcon, “the surface is pretty granular … and there’s some chips.”

No such dents in the priciest item in the sale, though. The million-dollar ancient Cycladic female figure carved in marble, circa 2400 B.C., has been traced back through the centuries to a particular craftsman, Christie’s said. Named after a mid-century American couple who collected ancient art, he’s called “the Schuster Master.”

editorial@observer.com Dirt Cheap? Ancient Relics at Modest Prices, With Big Caveats