Antique dealers feel the pinch
With today's antiques market feeling the effects of the economic crisis, Mohamed Mursi investigates the history of antiques in Egypt
Everyone who sells luxury goods knows that when the economy begins to wobble, antique dealers suffer perhaps most of all.
Ali El-Assal, who owns an antiques shop on Hoda Shaarawi Street in downtown Cairo, sits in front of his shop, hoping for customers. Things have been slow of late, he says, and it is not just the current crisis that bothers him.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a change in the clientele. Customers who know the real value of antiques are disappearing, with a new set of customers regarding antiques as simply used pieces, or second-hand furniture at best.
The old traders have also disappeared. Those who knew everything about antiques are no longer around to inspire others, and today's traders, El-Assal says, sometimes know very little about the profession. "Some cannot even tell the difference between a French and an English piece," he adds.
Madame Elaine's Greek family came to Egypt a long time ago to deal in antiques. Sitting at her auction house in downtown Cairo, Elaine says that it is hard today to find good merchandise. Pieces that can be truly described as "antiques", a word reserved for things made at least a century or so ago, are no longer easy to come by.
"There are still relatively new pieces that the market treats as antiques, but few people sell original pieces today. When they do so, the asking price is too high for the market to bear. For a French bedroom set or dining set, for example, it is not uncommon for the sellers to ask as much as LE2 million," she says.
Fouad Seddiq, owner of the Osiris auction house in downtown Cairo, takes a less pessimistic view. Regardless of ups and downs in the market place, he says, people are still interested in antiques and want to acquire original pieces at reasonable prices.
"The problem is that the profession has been infiltrated by newcomers," he says. For Seddiq, a "newcomer" is someone who doesn't play by the rules, who lacks an established record, or whose family hasn't been in the business for generations.
"The antiques trade has its secrets, and these are known only to a handful of experts. Like any market, seasonal fluctuations occur. There is original and rare stuff around. Unfortunately, there are also knockoffs," he says.
Truly valuable antiques are not only old. Many of them were also collector's pieces even at the time that they were made. Many are signed by famous makers, or come from the best workshops.
Seddiq draws a line between "antique" and "masterpiece". Antique can apply to any piece more than a century old, and it can be used for Islamic, Coptic and Pharaonic objects. Trading in such heritage items used to take place often before it was stopped.
A "masterpiece", on the other hand, is something else entirely. This is an exquisite item produced by an international artist or workshop. When shopping in Egypt, don't expect to come upon any masterpieces, Seddiq says.
Trade in antiques started in Egypt in the 19th century, and it was first the preserve of Italian and Greek dealers. "The Khan Al-Khalili area was the first market for antiques in Egypt, and it was followed by the downtown area, especially Hoda Shaarawi Street, in the 1930s. Now the biggest constellation of antique shops is in Zamalek, where you can find more than 20 major antique shops exhibiting rare chandeliers, candleholders, furniture, silverware and chinaware," Seddiq explains.
"Before the 20th century, it was alright to trade in mediaeval pieces, even in ancient Egyptian pieces. Laws banning the trade in heritage items had not been passed, and the houses of many statesmen were once filled with mediaeval Arab furniture."
Today, many of the rare pieces still to be seen in antique dealers were brought to Egypt in the time of the Khedive Ismail, when it was fashionable for influential Egyptians to furnish their homes with French-made items. Over time, the contents of such houses would be sold at auction, ending up in the hands of dealers and private collectors.
Famous early antique dealers include Cassati and Arkash, with private collectors including the former King Farouk and Prince Mohamed Ali, whose palace in Manial contains thousands of rare carpets, chairs, chandeliers, paintings, manuscripts, chinaware and glassware.
According to Seddiq, a boom in the market for antiquities followed the departure of many foreign families from Egypt following the 1952 Revolution.
"When the foreigners started leaving Egypt, they sold off their furniture and only took light objects with them, such as paintings. This is why the Egyptian market suffers from a shortage of paintings to this day. The boom in the market continued until the 1970s, when the Open-Door Policy created a lot of nouveaux riches. The boom also tempted some unscrupulous traders to pass fake objects off as originals," Seddiq recalls.
Mohamed Moussa, who owns an antiques shop in Zamalek, agrees that the market has been slow for the past decade or so. Pointing at an elegant chandelier hanging in his shop, he says that bronze Louis XV-style chandeliers with extravagant detailing are popular. People who prefer a simpler style go for the more sober Louis XVI-style chandeliers, which sell for LE3,000 or so. Ottoman chandeliers made of Bohemian glass are also very popular due to their bright colours and elegance.
French chandeliers made by the French maker Emile Galle are popular because of their smooth, floral patterns, Moussa says. Galle's original factory was destroyed in World War II, and small original Galle chandeliers can now fetch some LE20,000 in Egypt.
Popular chinaware among today's Egyptian buyers includes that made in Sèvres in France, often used for jewellery boxes. German chinaware is also much sought-after, and Chinese vases continue to be desirable items.
Egyptian buyers also love Persian carpets from Isfahan and Tabriz, each carpet being priced according to the number of knots and the quality of the wool or silk used. Afghan carpets are also quite popular, but perhaps not as popular as Persian ones, Moussa adds.