The Vessel with the Pestle

Erin L. Thompson

An auction at Roseberys to benefit Classics for All, which aims to bring a classical education to students at underprivileged schools in the UK, was cancelled recently after the charity pulled out of it. Besides the usual fundraiser fare – an autographed set of Stephen Fry’s Mythos trilogy; a guided tour of the British Museum’s Greek and Roman galleries – were 31 lots of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, all donated by the Kallos Gallery in Mayfair, an operation owned by Baron Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza, ‘an ancient-art-collecting aristocrat of Swiss-Hungarian German-British-American heritage’.

The world of antiquities dealers is notoriously opaque. You usually have to wander into a shop to see what’s for sale and only get shown the price list if you look like the right sort of customer. But the pandemic meant that this charity auction was being held online; the catalogue was taken down after Classics for All withdrew.

Lot 29 was a Greek silver tetradrachm of Alexander the Great, from the fourth century BCE, set in 18 karat gold and hung from a chain to make a necklace. Perfect for someone who wants to keep a great leader of the past close to their heart, or at least their chest hair. According to the auction catalogue, the necklace was worth £3000 to £4000 and had a starting bid of £2400. I found it in a Kallos sales catalogue from April (to aid the NHS Charities Together Covid-19 Appeal), listed for £3000, along with more information about where the coin had come from – a numismatic auction in Vienna in 2019. Those sales records show that the coin, not a very rare one, sold for €300. That’s quite a mark-up for adding a chain.

Lots 7, 10 and 19 in the charity auction were miniature alabaster vessels, dated to the Egyptian 18th Dynasty. The catalogue described them as coming from a private collection in Zurich, ‘acquired in 1975 when the owners lived in Cairo’. What it didn’t say, but I found after a quick internet search, is that they were sold at Bonhams in July 2020 as part of a single lot of seven vessels – a toilet set, of the kind placed in a tomb to ensure the occupant a well-scented afterlife. If they are genuine, these objects survived together for nearly 4000 years, only to have a dealer divide them up to make more by selling them individually.

If they are genuine. Alabaster is a soft stone, easily carved and impossible to date with scientific testing. One of the more notorious fakes of recent years was the ‘Amarna Princess’, authenticated by Christie’s and the British Museum but actually carved from alabaster in a garden shed in Bolton (the artist was sent to jail). Undecorated alabaster vessels are even easier to make. Instead of spending the £1000 minimum bid for just one of them at an auction, you could take a course and learn to carve as many of them as you want yourself.

If you prefer your unverifiable alabaster to be ascribed to the Greeks rather than the Egyptians, you could have bid on Lot 18, a miniature Cypriot alabaster lekythos with a starting price of £1800, from the ‘Dr Hugh Alderson Fawcett (1891-1982) Collection, UK’. The provenance comes once again from Bonhams, which sold the lekythos along with a ‘Roman marble pestle’ for £701 in July 2019. Again, quite the mark-up, but at least this time the information can assuage some moral qualms. Presuming that Dr Fawcett acquired the lekythos during the earlier part of his life, for example while he was helming an STD clinic in Hong Kong, you can guess that it left Greece before 1970.

That was the year that Unesco promulgated the international Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. For centuries, archaeological sites had been looted to provide treasures for collectors or tchotchkes for tourists – Flaubert scrambled into a tomb himself when he visited Egypt, breaking off a mummy’s foot that he took home and kept on his writing desk. The Unesco convention meant that no one any longer had an excuse for not thinking about the origins of their new acquisitions.

Reputable museums generally won’t either buy antiquities or accept them as donations without a fully documented ownership history dating back to at least 1970. Many academics refuse to study undocumented antiquities, in case their scholarship is used to legitimise them on the market. But only around a fifth of the antiquities in the charity auction came with any sort of information about where they were between the ancient world and 1970, and most of it was unverifiably vague.

As soon as the auction was announced, scholars protested at the sale of potentially looted antiquities to support an organisation that wants to bring classics to the masses (which is a bit like trying to support a charity that helps protect people from human trafficking by auctioning off the services of an undocumented worker to clean your house without pay). Admirably, Classics for All soon responded by withdrawing from the auction.

Many of the antiquities in the auction have featured in past Kallos catalogues: apparently they were unable to sell them. But unsold stock doesn’t mean disaster if you can donate it to charity. Take Lot 15, a black pottery plate. It doesn’t look like much, even if you know that Greeks were eating fish from it in the fourth century BCE. It fetched £688 at an auction in September. But just three months later, Kallos had arranged to donate it to the charity auction with a minimum bid of £1500. Had the sale gone ahead, Kallos would have been able to claim tax relief based on the market value of its donations; the minimum bids added up to nearly £53,000.

The auction may have been cancelled, but you can still help Classics for All, while steering clear of the murky trade in unprovenanced antiquities, by making a donation.


  • 15 December 2020 at 7:13pm
    Steve Minniear says:
    Very interesting reading, thanks. And you hooked me with the title. I'm still looking for the flagon with the dragon.

  • 15 December 2020 at 7:24pm
    Gilbert O'brien says:
    You’ll know when you find it — it contains the brew that is true.

    • 15 December 2020 at 8:37pm
      prwhalley says: @ Gilbert O'brien
      Fake news! The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.

    • 16 December 2020 at 9:23am
      Gilbert O'brien says: @ prwhalley
      Because they broke the Chalice from the palace? Confused but sincere, never fake....

    • 16 December 2020 at 11:03am
      OldScrounger says: @ Gilbert O'brien
      There is just the faintest possibility that the passing reader may not have seen "The Court Jester", starring Danny Kaye. Yes, I know. Expel me from the Magic Circle if you must, but the public has a right to know!

    • 16 December 2020 at 6:03pm
      prwhalley says: @ Gilbert O'brien

    • 17 December 2020 at 9:30am
      Gilbert O'brien says: @ prwhalley
      An apology in a public forum...I’ve waited 75 years for that! A happy Christmas to you sir.

Read more