Millions Worth Of Art And Antiques Sold At Maltese Auctions Each Year

Marie-Claire Grima - 29th July 2017

“It’s just like investing in property. With property, the location is important; with antiques and artworks, it’s the style, the artist and the period."

The six or seven-figure world of antiques and art may seem impenetrable to an outsider, but Pierre Grech Pillow believes firmly that they’re worth the money. “Antiques and art are definitely a good investment, particularly pieces with Maltese provenance – anything related to Malta tends to do very well at auction. Taste is subjective, but instinctive – if you see a good piece and a bad piece, you’ll know immediately which one you prefer, and there’s always demand for good paintings.”

Mr Grech Pillow’s auction house, Obelisk, holds four main auctions every year. During each one, he sells between €2 million and €5 million worth of antiques, paintings, sculptures and other objets d’art. “The items we auction belong to private collectors who inherit the antiques and decide to sell. Between the moment we receive an object for sale and the one when we auction it, a whole year might pass because of the inheritance process.” He says he manages to sell between 70 and 80 per cent of the items on auction each time round. The rest is either handed back to the owner or retained for another auction in the next quarter.  Mr Grech Pillow, who also sells by private treaty, cannot not say precisely how much money the art and antiques trade generates in Malta overall, but states confidently that it’s a “multi-million figure.”

Obelisk was established nearly a decade ago with Mr Grech Pillow following in his father, Winston’s (nicknamed Benny, as in Benny’s Antiques) footprints and pursuing his own passion for antiques. He’s seen thousands of fascinating items come and go, but naturally there are a few that stick out in his memory. “For me, the most memorable auction was the sale of the contents of the late Giorgio Borg Olivier’s office. The desks and cupboards still had documents and letters inside dating back to when he was Prime Minister. It was definitely one of my best auctions ever.”

Mr Grech Pillow says that many of his clients buy antiques or art for investment purposes, including for the purpose of putting them in trusts. “It’s just like investing in property. With property, the location is important; with antiques and artworks, it’s the style, the artist and the period. In both cases, there’s the element of physical ownership. Some people say that antiques are going down, but interest is actually rising, especially thanks to the influx of foreign buyers. The best pieces will always remain good.”

Joseph Sammut, director of Belgravia Auction House in St Julian’s, holds a more cryptic view of buying antiques as an investment. “I have been involved in the auction world since 1977. The market was stable and healthy, increasing gradually, sometimes slowly, until 2004. The language used then was that antiques were an investment. Then things changed. Investment is a gamble based on foresight by individuals who think they can predict the future. Only when an object is sold can its investment potential be quantified. A buyer needs to decide on that one for himself.”

Belgravia holds around six auctions annually – approximately four of these are house auctions. Mr Sammut says that attendance rises and falls depending on content. “Overvalued lots rarely sell, while undervalued lots are just embarrassing. For a few years now, our catalogues have carried an estimate which allows you to compare them to the results of the auction. Furthermore, the internet has helped create a more knowledgeable and discerning client. It has also brought prices in line with international market for non-Maltese lots.”

Pierre Bugeja, the founder of PrevArti, one of Malta’s premier conservation and restoration companies, leads a team of experts who specialise in the preservation of antique furniture, paintings and sculpture. He believes that more often than not, there is something that can be done to conserve and restore a painting, although it becomes an issue when a painting has been heavily overpainted in a past restoration intervention and there is less than 50 per cent of the original painting left. However, there are exceptions to every rule. “Even though we’ve had several discoveries of paintings belonging to Old Masters, the most satisfying restoration process was one that we carried out on an 18th century painting, depicting a religious scene that formed part of a collection. It had been very badly damaged due to a severe mould attack, and anyone who looked at it thought it would be impossible to put together again. The paint had flaked, powdered and fallen out to the extent that it resembled fragments you would see in an archaeological find.  Following hours and hours of work, we managed to put it all together and only a little part was missing. This was a great achievement – seeing the client so content to have been given something that was thought to be lost completely was one of the highlights of my career.”

Mr Bugeja says that while works by renowned artists that are signed are usually a good catch if proven to be authentic by a professional, there are also paintings that were never signed that are still high in value – unsigned pieces were common in the Baroque era. “A painting that has already been attributed to an artist or one which could be attributed in the future is considered to be a good investment; however there are a lot of factors which should be taken into consideration. It is always recommended to seek the professional advice of a conservator.”

Mr Bugeja offers the following tips for people who are out to make a killing at auction. “Do your homework during the viewing and collect as much information as possible. Seek professional advice from a conservator. Take a small UV torch with you to check whether there are any previous restoration interventions. The 'easiest' damage to fix would be working on a painting with no (or close to no) previous restoration interventions. This is because in the past restoration was extremely invasive and materials used were irreversible making it more difficult to restore. And ask for the cost of conservation and restoration of the item beforehand - this way your investment will be preserved.”

This article originally appeared in The Business Observer


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