Design & Decoration S03 ep5 : Jerome Eisenberg, Eisenberg Antiques, [New York]
Interview with Jerome Eisenberg
Royal-Athena Galleries currently offer one of the widest ranges of antiquities available anywhere in the world, including Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian, and Near-Eastern sculpture and vases as well as Classical coins, 17th to 19th century prints and 19th century photographs of Classical and Egyptian subjects. They have been dealing in ancient art for more than 46 years and the founder and director Dr. Jerome M. Eisenberg is internationally recognised for his expertise in the field."
The Royal Athena Galleries was originally Royal Coin Company dealing primarily in ancient and
foreign coins but I started working with Greek and Roman coins when I was 12 years old in 1942.
My father and mother had a private school and he bought a Roman coin for me for fifty cents on
January 1st 1942 and we started dealing together. Never collecting, he’d buy the coins, I’d classify
them, we opened up a shop in 1945 in Boston but then I went into the army in ’51 and when I got
out of the army I opened up in New York.
From 1948 to ’51 when I was 18 to 21, I published and edited a monthly geology magazine and the
ancient coins were a hobby business and then when I went to school at Boston University I studied
geology. I took one course in fine arts and had no idea that I’d be dealing in fine art. I continued
dealing in coins as a business when I left school and I bought my first antiquities in 1954, not
knowing that you could buy ancient art, I didn’t know you could even buy it for sale.
About three years later some people brought some material in to consign to me, they brought a
little Corinthian vase for me, a couple of Roman pieces and I found out you could buy antiquities.
Back in those days it was an amazing opportunity. My first trip to Egypt in 1958, I bought
thousands of pieces for virtually nothing. From 1958 to 1965 I bought 24,000 antiquities and
brought them all out legally through the museum out of Egypt.
That’s one of the problems today with provenance, we have the big problem with selling things to
museums they want to date before 1970 but I could almost guarantee you that of the 24,000
antiquities I sold, I doubt whether 1,000 even had my name on them as Royal Athena Galleries,
nevertheless the provenance.
They had dealers in shops. I was the first dealer buying wholesale, the museum would give a
licence for export.
We were literally uncovering things, things were packed up in shelves covered with dust because
at that time the dealers either sold small scarabs or trinkets to tourists, or they sold the better pieces
to dealers, but nobody bought wholesale. I would buy 100 terracottas, I would buy 500 lamps, I
just, I cleaned out some of the dealers that were the ethical, the honest dealers, they were wily
people dealing in those times also.
The official export licences stopped in 1983 but I didn’t go back after ’65 because there were
injunctions already at that time.
I would buy pieces in Egypt for 50 piastres, 50 cents and I’d buy pieces for $5,000, nobody else
was going to that extreme. We were selling antiquities through the Brooklyn Museum at the time.
I started selling back in 1960 to museums. We’ve sold now some over 700 pieces to museums in
the last few years.
In Italy at the time it was legal until 1971 I bought antiquities in Italy. I bought in auctions in Paris,
I bought from dealers in Switzerland and Germany, I would go on buying trips, one city each day
so I’d go from London to Brussels to Paris to Basal to Zurich to Legano.
The December auctions were phenomenal prices and in fact a gentleman just bought a piece from
me on the phone a few minutes ago, to find a piece like that is a search, now if I find 10 really top
pieces a year it’s a lot, where I used to find maybe 30 or 40.
Anything aesthetically pleasing or unusual turns me on so it may not be a beautiful work of art, but
it may be important in terms of why it was created at that time, the reason it was created for. You
have for example a Truscan tripod stands with a gorgon head, Medusa on each one, which we have
in the fair here, Medusa is not a beautiful head, it’s a gorgon it’s a terrifying head.
My PhD is in forgery in ancient art. A terracotta you can do thermal luminescence tests, on a
marble you can use ultraviolet to see whether it’s been outside for a period of time, although an
18th Century marble can be outdoors for two centuries also. Isotopic analysis of a marble to see
where it was made so for example a marble may come from a quarry in Anatolia in Turkey and it’s
during the Roman period that it was made and it’s of the style of the eastern provinces so
everything fits into place.
This is the most important piece I have now. One of the four finest pieces I’ve had the pleasure of
dealing with, an Egyptian priestess. This came from originally Switzerland many, many years ago
in storage then went to a Canadian collector then went to a collector in south of the United States.
This is 37 inches, 94cm and it’s a gold necklace, the wig is removable from the head and it had
traces of gold … this was a priestess in the temple of Armon so this is my most important Egyptian
piece ever. This is about $4M. Then I had two very, very fine pieces I’m in the process of getting
back, this is the largest Egyptian cat in the world. I sold it in 1990 and it’s 24 inches. At the same
time I sold him this also 20 years ago, a seated lion goddess being held by an attendant, also huge,
22 inches so these are important pieces, these are in the couple of million dollar range.
There are very few collectors of antiquities this is the problem, the supply and demand, if
antiquities were valued in the same way as modern art or 19th Century art, Renaissance art, then
these pieces would be five and ten times the value. But this started showing up very recently in
December a bust of Antenuous a marble bust of Antenuous, the only one known with an inscription
sold at auction in New York, it was estimated I think at three or four million dollars and two
collectors of other art decided that they wanted to buy it and it sold for $23M hammer price.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Jerome Eisenberg, Eisenberg Antiques, New York