Listen to this article
Anyone who has walked down Davies Street in London’s Mayfair in the past few months could not have failed to notice a green builders’ hoarding emblazoned with an arresting, oversize image of an ancient Greek bronze helmet and the legend: “Power. Survival. Glory.” Closer inspection reveals that numbers 14-16 are the premises of Kallos (the Greek word for “beautiful”).
Due to open on May 15, Kallos is just one among several new antiquities galleries currently under construction in the city’s art market heartland of Mayfair and St James’s. The presiding genius of this new venture is 50-year-old Swiss entrepreneur and collector Lorne Thyssen, more properly Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon, an heir to one of Europe’s biggest industrial fortunes.
As we begin a tour of what is still a building site, I have one burning question. Why? Of course collecting is in the genes (four generations of them). Thyssen’s late father, most notably, amassed one of the great Old Master and modern art collections of the 20th century, now housed in the Palacio de Villahermosa in Madrid. Lorne Thyssen’s own holdings of gold boxes and Roman coins are world- class, while other Roman antiquities include many of the greatest pieces to have come to the market in recent years.
Kallos, however, will offer only Greek antiquities – “everyone would accuse me of cherry-picking if I dealt in what I also collect”, he smiles. But why turn a private passion for the classical world into a business proposition? It is not that Thyssen needs a vanity project to occupy his time; he runs “a large family business” involving venture capital and oil exploration.
The answer emerges as we wander through what will be the double-fronted ground-floor gallery, downstairs gallery and library, where works of art will be exhibited not in display cases but on plinths and furniture. “We are used to looking at these artefacts in enclosed glass vitrines and tiptoeing around them reverentially, and we forget that they are household items. Imagined in context they come alive,” he enthuses in impeccable English, a consequence of a Scottish mother and growing up partly in London. “What I really want is to shake things up and blow the cobwebs off the antiquities game.”
While more and more dealers have elected (or been obliged) to retreat to upper-floor galleries open by appointment only, Thyssen has chosen a welcoming shop window and is on a mission to encourage new collectors. He also plans to use the gallery as a “forum” to bring together the mutually wary (if not downright hostile) scholarly and collecting communities, and to move forward what he calls “the dialogue of the deaf”.
He continues: “Everyone needs one another now that archaeology is so starved of funds.” Thyssen himself supports research and archaeology at the University of Oxford, and is also part way through an Open University degree in Classics.
The idea of a gallery had been “rattling around” at the back of his mind for the past seven or eight years, and he has been discreetly buying stock for the past six. The gallery will open with just 20 pieces. These range from the spirited Attic stamnos or vase attributed to the workshop of the Antimenes Painter and decorated in the rare incised “Six technique”, with Theseus chasing the Minotaur, to a Hellenistic East Greek gilt silver roundel of around the 3rd-1st century BC, fashioned in high relief with an eagle gripping Zeus’s thunderbolt.
As Thyssen acknowledges, only a half-dozen great pieces of Greek art come up for sale each year that also have a pre-1970s provenance outside their country of origin (as recommended by the Unesco Convention), and the challenge will be to continue to source them.
Meanwhile, around the corner, two veteran dealers are also putting their money where their hearts are. Bond Street sculpture specialist (and collector) Daniel Katz, who launched his career as an antiquities dealer 47 years ago, is refurbishing almost palatial premises at 6 Hill Street, a six-storey, 6,000 sq ft Edwardian townhouse. He is also expanding, and refining, his business. When the gallery opens at the end of April, it will offer “the best of everything available on the market” – including antiquities.
“I have always been fascinated by the ancient world,” says Katz, “and because those specialising in Roman and Greek art have very deep pockets, I decided to focus on Egyptian antiquities and have been making the most of the fact that the two biggest collectors in the area have gone rather quiet.” His offering at Tefaf in Maastricht includes an exceptional green greywacke (sandstone) inscribed torso of General Psamtik, governor of Upper Egypt, from around 360-343BC.
The second floor of his building is to be occupied by New York’s Ariadne Galleries. Torkom Demirjian has been dealing in antiquities for more than 40 years, and finds London increasingly a key place to do business. His approach will complement Katz’s business. “We will bridge the gaps in terms of chronology and geography,” he explains, citing the gallery’s strength in Byzantine art, a growing interest for Russian buyers. “We won’t just have one or two great pieces, but will be presenting many, many options and price levels. There are still great, great quality works of art that are relatively inexpensive.”
Katz’s current neighbour, Rupert Wace Ancient Art, is also relinquishing its upper-floor gallery and moving at the end of May into a five-storey, Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse, 19 Crown Passage, opposite Christie’s (which, incidentally, has moved its antiquities sales back to King Street from South Kensington). “We have sensed a change in the antiquities market for a while, and it has been confirmed by our participation in art fairs such as Frieze Masters,” explains Wace. “Contemporary art collectors are surprised by the relatively low cost of antiquities – in fact it has almost put some of them off,” he jokes. “But it is not just contemporary collectors – or contemporary artists and dealers. Other collectors are starting to look.”
Wace believes the role of the dealer in this complex market is more important than ever. “Aesthetics, to some extent, are a matter of opinion but quality should speak loudly enough. Our job is to ensure authenticity, condition and legality on the market. Our clients know we have done due diligence.” His colleagues would agree. Unlike them, however, he finds it “hard to resist small, nice objects that remain relatively accessible [prices from £500]. You can still have fun in this field on a limited budget.” That said, a deep pocket is required for Wace’s star offering at Tefaf, a possibly unique 5th-century BC silver vessel in the form of a recumbent ram from the Achaemenid (First Persian) Empire.
As for Tefaf’s other London antiquities exhibitor, Charles Ede Ltd, this second-generation family firm is also moving to larger Mayfair premises, 3 King’s Yard, in the autumn. “Our gallery is just too small,” sighs James Ede, “and there are many lovely things around at the moment.”
Get alerts on Arts when a new story is published