Near the fireplace in the home of British art dealer Charis Tyndall is a small dark material similar to a lump of coal. On closer inspection, it is actually a fragment of an ancient Egyptian statue from the 14th century BC. AD, representing the ear, wig and a little mane of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess. “If you don’t know what you’re looking at, you might think it’s a piece of rubble,” she laughs. “The nonchalance of it can be quite pleasant. Only Ancient Shards do this – that’s one of the reasons they’re getting so incredibly popular. “
Tyndall is the director of London-based antique dealer Charles Ede, which is celebrating 50 years of business. She speaks to me on the phone from the Marylebone gallery, her anecdote on the Egyptian fragment is an example of the changing tastes of historical art collectors, one of the “major changes” that she identifies that the gallery has encountered in during its five decades.
Fifty years seems like a drop in the ocean for a shopping gallery specializing in antiques from Ancient Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire, which has sold more than 30,000 items to museums and collectors around the world . Still, Tyndall says for her and her managing director Martin Clist, the antiques business has changed. Adapting to changing tastes, digital developments and the rise of contemporary art have enabled the gallery to remain on its toes. An example this week is its cross-platform events at Online Masterpieces Fair alongside an in-person exhibition of the same pieces in his gallery.
Tastes and fashions have leaned towards smaller, more unassuming pieces – such as the trend for fragments on whole objects – reflecting a cultural transition whereby “people are not as flashy as they once were.” She compares 19th and 21st century homes, which moved away from the gilded furniture and scrolling acanthus leaves of the old to today’s minimalist interiors. As in any market, what’s in vogue will change, but unlike the rapid movements of the contemporary art world, in antiques it’s “much slower”. “You aren’t suddenly going to find yourself owning something deeply old-fashioned!” “
Another change for the gallery is the pressure from ancient art collectors demanding greater transparency on the provenance of objects. Ideas about cultural heritage and ownership are challenged and challenged. “We are faced with questions that people weren’t asking before,” Tyndall says. “People wonder how other people behaved and how the objects moved. They want proof that they haven’t been deported from their home country in the past 20 or 30 years.
She notes that the gallery “keeps copies of absolutely everything”, but adds: “there is an effort to be made. [provenance] more in black and white but it’s difficult. . . all that is Roman does not come from Italy. Geographic lines have been drawn and we apply them to ancient cultures. It’s important to ask questions, but it’s also about the legality of trading. Items were meant to be traded as long as they had left the country legally.
With the emergence of new artistic innovations such as non-fungible tokens (NFT), how does a gallery specializing in ancient art keep “up to date” when its works are the exact opposite? The answer is by working together. At Charles Ede’s joint booth with New York contemporary gallery Sean Kelly during the fall edition of Tefaf New York 2019, the juxtaposition of their genres produced a striking visual mix. Galleries have associated a sculpture of Asclepius draped in Roman marble with works by Scottish abstract painter Callum Innes, whose process – ‘depainting’ his canvases using turpentine to remove layers of paint – Tyndall compares to the creation of marble statues. “It’s the same principle of stripping something to create what you want hidden inside.”
The recent trend towards cross-collecting, fueled in part by fairs spanning all genres that have coupled the works of cutting-edge artists with those of their ancestors of ancient art, reflects the changes in modern tastes. Popular collections no longer lean heavily on one side or the other of the historical spectrum; they incorporate a wide range of pieces and eras.
“Antiques can bring a level of seriousness to a modern collection and contemporary art can bring a certain sensuality to an antique and keep it relevant so that it isn’t just another broken sculpture. It helps you reinvent these pieces and I find that exciting, ”she adds.
Contemporary art may not be a threat to the gallery or the ancient art market, but the rapid moves into the digital sphere are more difficult. “We love the tangible and the analog,” says Tyndall. As the pandemic has accelerated the exodus of the art world to go live, companies operating in antiques and old masters have suffered the biggest losses (a drop of 39% in 2020 from the previous year for old art against 20% for contemporary, according to the Review of the Art Market 2021).
Fortunately, there is a certain weight to being a long-standing gallery that “really helped” Charles Ede avoid a drop in profits, Tyndall confirms. “We have a reputation, so people weren’t nervous about buying from us without meeting us.” The digital challenges they faced are more technical: browsing juddery websites hosting online art fairs, testing virtual tours of galleries, trying to sell certain items on a screen. The nuances of a pattern on a Hellenistic vase, for example, its size, the way light bounces off it, are all lost in the flat pixels of an online image. “Thank goodness there is Zoom! Exclaims Tyndall, describing how she used the platform to show her clients rooms, allowing them to “get a feel for scale and natural light.”
A concession that exchanges bits and pieces of the past must always look to the future. The key, for Tyndall, is adaptability. “With every change you always have the opportunity to question your professional conduct and adjust it flexibly. She thinks that studying the past through these artefacts helps us learn from them. “It makes us look at ourselves, human history and the way we have treated each other,” she recalls.