A Passion for the Past
By Fayez Barakat
LEADERS MAGAZINE JULY, AUGUST, SEPTEMBER 1986
In a world of unpredictable
futures, I derive great pleasure from contemplating the past, the world
of Antiquity, the foundations upon which modern civilizations rests. As
a dealer in ancient art I am surrounded by proof of the endurance of human
creativity, ingenuity, and spirituality. The artifacts in my Beverly Hills
Gallery were made by people who could not have possibly imagined the brash
and progressive world of todays Los Angeles. Yet, when I hold such
treasures in my hands, they give me as much pleasure as they did their
original owners thousands of years ago. A truly fine piece of ancient
art is not merely a remnant of a vanished civilization, it is a definition
of civilization itself, evidence of what we can attain and of how we can
express ourselves with grace and imagination. It reminds one that whether
it be Athens or Rome, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Paris, or New York that is the
capital of its age, the world endures and men continue to dream of beauty.
The antiquities that I cherish most have an aura, a personality
which transcends their obvious appearance or function and which I call
energy. Like beauty, it is to be found in the eye or the touch
of the individual. Energy is partly the result of reality and partly
of imagination, and everyone perceives it differently. Take as an example
a clay oil jug found in Hebron and dated to the Middle Bronze Age (ca.
2000 BC), the era of the biblical patriarchs. In appearance it is simple,
of buff-colored terra cotta, nicely shaped but unadorned. It feels pleasant
in the hand cool, dry and light. Then one realizes that a craftsman
formed this jug with his hands, someone bought it and held it in theirs.
The piece has a history, not completely known, but an undeniable real
history. In the Old Testament it says that Abraham anointed Isaac with
oil. Could this be the jug he used? The imagination begins to spin and
one feels the energy of the object, the link between one life and
another. One realizes that the cycle of existence has been continuous.
One is given a renewed hope that it will remain that way.
Of course, there are as many different types of energy
as there are types of collectors. Even after many years in the business,
just when I think I have seen it all, I am constantly discovering a new
reason why somebody collects ancient art. There are institutional collectors,
museums and corporations, who in this modern day and age tend to be extremely
selective about their needs. One prominent curator laughingly told me
that he wished he had a petty cash-fund, say in the $5,000 range, for
choice smaller items, because the board of trustees at his institution
didnt like to consider any purchase less that $50,000! There are
collectors who make no secret of the fact that they acquire objects just
as a hedge against inflation. I respect their straightforward attitude
and am pleased to offer investment counseling, but I have almost always
found that at the heart of their prudent collecting is a love of the art
There are the intellectual collectors, those who build
with a specific goal in mind, say, a complete set of Roman Imperial coinage,
or objects related to the history of gaming and gambling. These people
often wait years for a particular piece
to complete their holdings, and it is a challenge for
me to locate artifacts with such clients in mind. I once negotiated for
almost a decade to acquire an unobtrusive clay oil lamp from a European
gentleman because it had been found in a specific site and another client
needed to complete his collection. The purchase price was about $100 and
I sold it only for a small profit, though the new owner would have been
willing to pay much more.
By far the largest group of collectors, and in many ways
the easiest to please, are those who are guided by their aesthetic instinct.
These are the people who choose what is beautiful regardless of its origin.
Some of my favorite clients have living rooms in which a marble head of
the goddess Aphrodite may share space with a Mayan cylindrical vase, and
on the wall a painting by Picasso. The love of beauty seems to me one
of the prime motivating forces behind civilization. It is not a luxury,
it is a necessity. Without beauty to appreciate, what would be the purpose
of existence? It is a very special kind of energy indeed when a collector
falls in love with a piece at first sight. That the object very frequently
happens to be historically important and a sound financial investment
and is only a happy coincidence to him.
Akin to this group of collectors are the sentimentalists
- people who buy things for deeply personal reasons, usually not directly
dependent on an artifacts cultural origin. One woman purchased a
vibrant pre-Columbian statue from me because she said it reminded her
of her late husband. Another person bought a Roman glass tear bottle,
into which the living usually wept tears for burial with the deceased,
as a lovers gift.
Religious, ethnic and historical factors contribute to
the other major form of collecting, that which is emotional. As my family
has been acquiring antiquities in the Holy Land for over four generations,
we have a wealth of objects which are important to three of the worlds
major faiths. Among these are a coin minted in the final hectic days of
Shimon Bar Kochbas doomed revolt against Rome in the second century,
the last independent Jewish coins struck until modern times; a Coptic
papyrus codex that is perhaps the earliest version of the Christian bible;
and early Islamic documents that rival the Dead Sea Scrolls in importance.
Naturally, it is an arbitrary matter to place a value
on such treasures. Though they are all for sale, I will only let them
go to the right owner, and at the right time.
Other emotional needs are more simply met. Artifacts
relating to Alexander the great are much sought after, and I almost always
have items dating to his lifetime available. One excited woman wanted
something which had personally belonged to Cleopatra. After I had explained
how difficult this would be to prove, I was able to satisfy her quest
with a coin bearing the image of the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt. In
real life, Cleopatra was no great beauty, but the woman saw exactly the
qualities she wanted in the tiny portrait..
I find the most fascinating collectors are those who
are guided by spiritual energy. I have had people burst into tears while
handling an artifact in the gallery and say that they recognize it as
something they owned or created in a previous existence. Others thank
me for bringing them together with items they feel they had misplaced
centuries before. While I am happy to act as a catalyst for these surprisingly
frequent reunions, reincarnation is a mystery I have yet to enlighten
myself about. I am however a firm believer in destiny, and I understand
absolutely that certain artifacts belong with certain owners, at least
for the present.
To make a permanent record of the Barakat Collection
as it was when I first came to Los Angeles, I published a 320 page, full-color
catalog featuring an enormous variety of artifacts from different cultures.
It has become a collectors item itself, largely because people respond
to the unbroken span of human achievement it represents and to the mixture
of humble and majestic history happily coexisting between its covers.
People call or write from all over the world to say they saw something
in my catalogue that they are compelled to acquire. I am surprised but
delighted that the captivating spell these objects exert can be felt even
through photographs. The power antiquities hold is unquestionably real
and very seductive.
My most recent acquisition is a good example. At first
glance it is merely an anonymous clay jar, unassuming in appearance. Yet
this is no ordinary vessel, for until recently it held part of the Dead
Sea Scrolls. It is so easy to imagine the authors of those precious documents
entrusting their safekeeping through the ages to this sturdy simple pot.
Great thoughts can be held in plain containers, and through this association
the containers become magical, wonderful and great too. The energy is
there to be felt. It only takes a little imagination.