Design & Decoration S02 ep8 : Hichaam Aboutam, Phoenix Antiques, [New York]
Interview with Hichaam Aboutam
Phoenix: Phoenix Ancient Art is a second generation antiquities dealer based in Geneva and in
New York, that’s been selling fabulous antiquities to museums and private collectors throughout
Phoenix: The business started in Lebanon in the late 60’s by our late father. He first collected
coins, Byzantine coins, and from those coins and his strong history of the Middle East, became an
avid collector of antiquities and at some point needed money to buy what he like and this is how
he started selling, mostly in Europe in the beginning. And Lebanon was in a unique situation
among most source countries because it was the only country that would allow the exportation of
antiquities and the trade in antiquities.
Phoenix: This is a Roman statuette of the Goddess Aphrodite after a Greek original from the 1st
Century BC. The nude Goddess is standing gracefully next to her is the God of Love, Cupid. A
Cupid riding a dolphin. This is what we see later in Renaissance art and what influences our
appreciation for beauty until today.
Phoenix: I tried to study architecture and switched to architecture and my brother actually studied
engineering and he became a Civil Engineer but regardless our efforts were really, really short and
we found ourselves nearly completely emerged in this wonderful field. We were born surrounded
by antiquities and these were our toys, would look at them and handle them and look at catalogues
and travel to auctions and we couldn’t get out of that. And I think the same thing is happening now
with my children.
Phoenix: This is a Greek Hellenistic solid cast bronze of the God Hermes that dates to the 3rd
Century BC. You could see one of his surviving wings on top of his head, it’s of wonderful quality,
this is what later Roman copies, copied and it recalls the School of Felicipus the great Greek
sculpture the head is smaller than usual because the rule of Felicipus for a statuary was that the
head should be about 1/8th the length of the body. You could see that the wing is silvered the
nipples are visible, the torso recalls what we later know from the belvedere torso, the anatomy is
extraordinary, there is a subtlety in the composition, yet at the same time, it is a very difficult
composition to sculpt in bronze.
Phoenix: What is it about antiquities that does not get into you? It gets to you, it gets to your soul
and to your thinking, it’s a great passion, the passion of wonderful works of art that were created
centuries and millennia before us and survived up to our lifetime, we learn so much from looking
at these beautiful works and we learn so much about the history of art from its beginning until
Phoenix: This is a terracotta cosmetic vessel in the shape of an owl, it was made in Corinth in
Greece. The period is called Grotto Corinthian so it dates to about 625BC. This is one of three
known owls in the world so it’s exceedingly rare. It’s intact, the polychrome is well preserved. The
owl in Greece represented the Goddess Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom. This cosmetic vessel
looking at the base, this would have had a lid and these two holes here were meant to help
suspending it. The other owl that we know of that was traded was sold allegedly about 25 years ago
to a European, a German museum for at the time 500,000 deutchemarks.
Phoenix: Recently, my brother Ali for a period of about seven or eight years was pursuing a
collection of Greek vases in Switzerland and he became friends with the collectors and friends
with their children and socialising with them, and they’re wonderful people actually I should say,
and in the end he managed to acquire the whole collection of Greek vases, which is a wonderful
thing for any dealer actually or any institution to do. While researching the collection, we
discovered that one of the most important vases, which is a Hedlia, has a fragment of it in the
Louvre and the Louvre had purchased that fragment which was triangular in shape in the 1860’s
and since then the actual vase for which that fragment belong was missing, known to be
somewhere, but we don’t know where that place is, until we acquired it and that was a great joy for
Phoenix: Raiding tombs was a practice happening, that was happening centuries ago and kept
happening until the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, if it’s happening today that,
we shouldn’t touch those objects that leave their tombs and there are source nations without
permits. So we end up with a great number of objects and private collections and museums that
can trade legally without problems and it’s important to know who we’re buying from and what
sort of guarantees the seller is giving and what sort of a reputation they have.
Phoenix: It’s a complicated industry to be in and especially because of the fact that most source
countries do not allow the exportation of their antiquities, so one has to be careful about the issue
of ownership history. Now this is the first difficulty, the second difficulty is there’s less and less
objects around that one can deal in because it’s the number is really shrinking because pieces
move from hand to another and then ends up in a museum. Meaning, out of circulation.
Phoenix: Compare antiquities to other areas in art where you see these huge numbers for
contemporary paintings, the good thing about antiquities is that you don’t have to have a
wonderful relationship with your banker because there are objects that could be purchased for
$10,000, $50,000 still affordable and in the end everything is relative.
Phoenix: Most of these fine objects were lifetime possessions that were given or included for the
deceased for them to be enjoyed in the afterlife, which is a different concept than what we have
today, especially in Egypt and Greece, most times would be in tombs more than anywhere else.
Phoenix: My two boys, two younger boys are already hooked, they’re 7 and 5 and believe it or not
they do collect coins and recently they were mentioned in an article in the Wall Street Journal as
young collectors of antiquities.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Hichaam Aboutam, Phoenic Antiques, New York