Collecting Guide: 7 things to know about Greek vases

In the above video International Head of Antiquities G. Max Bernheimer surveys some of the magnificent vases offered offered in our Antiquities sale on April 25, while specialist Laetitia Delaloye offers an essential introduction covering everything from cracks to kraters to clay colour

For a civilisation that disappeared 2,000 years ago, the ancient Greeks left a great deal behind: philosophy, democracy, poetry, architecture, and an extensive corpus of vases, which comprise a large part of the archaeological record. Their durability, elegance and variety mean that they are as collectable today as when prize examples first began to be actively unearthed during the rise of the Grand Tour in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Their enduring popularity is reflected in the breadth of their influence on contemporary art — as seen in the pottery of Grayson Perry and Picasso, and in the paintings of de Chirico and Jonas Wood.

Many excellent examples of Greek vases can be seen on the market, but contemporary connoisseurs are advised to tread carefully when it comes to restoration, repairs and provenance. Here, Christie’s Specialist Laetitia Delaloye offers her top tips for new collectors looking to buy these ancient vessels.

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  • Bigger is generally better

From small kylikes (cups) to massive kraters (mixing vessels), Greek pottery varies greatly in size and style. Familiarise yourself as much as possible with these differences, and with their significance in terms of the rarity and value of a piece.

As a rule, larger pieces in good condition will sell for the highest prices, while smaller pieces are more likely to survive and are therefore more common on the market. The wide range of forms that we are familiar with today mostly evolved around the 6th century BC, including the elegant lekythos, olpe and amphora shapes that can often be seen at auction. 

The wide range of forms we are familiar with today mostly evolved around the 6th century BC
The wide range of forms we are familiar with today mostly evolved around the 6th century BC
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  • The more it's been restored, the more you need to be cautious

One of the first things a collector should contemplate is the condition of a vase. It is possible to find examples that are still intact centuries later, but they are very rare. If it has been repaired it’s important to look carefully at the extent of the damage and the quality of the restoration.

Is it made up of big fragments or small fragments? How much restoration is visible? If a piece is in fragments, are all the original pieces still there or have they been filled in? Has anything been repainted? The more restoration and repainting you can identify, the more careful you should be in terms of value.

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  • An attributable piece is worth more — if it has a signature, it’s extra-special

A relatively small number of Athenian vases bear the signature of the artist or of the potter; potter and painter were not always one and the same, but they could be. 

For example, in the Antiquities  sale on 25 April in New York we have on offer a lip-cup signed by Tleson as the potter. As the name of the painter is unknown, the artist is today called the Tleson Painter, and most scholars believe Tleson is both painter and potter. 

Other vase painters remain anonymous, but enough examples of their work survive to have enabled scholars to identify these unique personalities. The Oxford scholar John Beazley assigned names based on the modern location of that artist’s best vase, as in the Berlin Painter, or based on the subject matter on one of the artist’s best vases, as in the Meleager Painter.

A vase that has been attributed to a particular hand increases in value, while a piece that bears the signature of a particular artist or potter is even more special.

An Attic black-figured lip-cup. Attributed to the Tleson Painter, c. 6th century BC. 8¼ in (21 cm) diameter, excluding handles. Estimate $15,000-20,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 25 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

An Attic black-figured lip-cup. Attributed to the Tleson Painter, c. 6th century BC. 8¼ in (21 cm) diameter, excluding handles. Estimate: $15,000-20,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 25 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

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  • Their original contents could be more valuable than the vessels themselves

Different shapes served different functions. Many early Greek vases were made to order — to mark the death of a nobleman, for example. The vase would then be buried with the deceased, or perhaps used as a grave marker.

Large kraters were used to mix wine with water — the ancient Greeks did not drink their wine undiluted as we do today — and oinochoai were used for serving it. The highly sought-after Panathenaic amphorae were given to top athletes filled with the purest of oils, which was far more prized than the container itself. A wonderful example of this iconic shape (below) can be found in the Antiquities  sale in New York.

An Attic black-figured pseudo Panathenaic amphora. Circle of the Antimenes Painter, c. 500 BC. 17¾ in (45 cm) high. Estimate $200,000-300,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 25 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

An Attic black-figured pseudo Panathenaic amphora. Circle of the Antimenes Painter, c. 500 BC. 17¾ in (45 cm) high. Estimate: $200,000-300,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 25 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

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  • If it passed through the hands of a famous collector, it’s more valuable

As with any work of art, the provenance of a Greek vase is a very important consideration. Ideally, it should be possible to trace a vase from the point of excavation — sometimes as early as the 17th century — to the present day. If it passed through the hands of a notable 18th or 19th-century collector such as Thomas Hope, the Marquis of Lansdowne, Sir William Hamilton or Thomas Jenkins, significant value will be added to a piece — value that will not diminish.

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  • Different cities produced their own styles — and many were made in southern Italy

Decoration can tell you a lot about the age and origins of a vase, and can add considerable value. Some of the earliest pieces from the Archaic Period (around 9th–7th century BC) feature mainly geometric designs and natural forms, occasionally including iconic combat scenes and stylised warriors. As Greek painters perfected their techniques, scenes became more elaborate and daring, usually depicting mythology, banquets and athletes.

Many Greek cities produced vases in this period. Corinth was the dominant city at first, but Athens, due to its superior clay and more adventurous artists, became the leading centre for vase production from about 550 to 400 BC. 

Attic black-figure vases can be dated as far back as the 7th century BC, while the red-figure style evolved later and was also adopted by the Greek colonies in southern Italy, which developed a unique style of their own. A fine example of early vase decoration is the Attic black-figured hydria below, offered in the upcoming New York sale. 

An Attic black-figured hydria. Attributed to the Tyrrhenian Group, c. 570-550 BC. 11¾ in (29.9 cm) high. Estimate $20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 25 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

An Attic black-figured hydria. Attributed to the Tyrrhenian Group, c. 570-550 BC. 11¾ in (29.9 cm) high. Estimate: $20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 25 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

The earliest south Italian vases are almost indistinguishable from their Athenian prototypes, but over the course of the 4th century BC, the different schools (Lucanian, Apulian, Campanian, Paestan and Sicilian) developed their own styles. 

South Italian vases are not as highly sought after by scholarly collectors, which means that there are more opportunities to acquire larger, more elaborate vases for less money than something comparable made in Athens.

While elements such as the colour of the clay can hint at the geographical origin and period of a vase, a thermo-luminescence test can also be undertaken to reliably date a vessel and give peace of mind to the owner.

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  • Smaller pieces start from just £1,000

The market for Greek vases has always been strong, and recently we have seen collectors buying ancient pieces to sit alongside cutting-edge contemporary art. Smaller pieces start from just £1,000, while larger and rarer pieces can sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

In July 2016 two large kraters in very good condition, both of which were estimated at £50,000, ended up realising £170,500 and £182,500 respectively. They had been attributed to a specific painter, and were beautifully decorated.  

If you really want to develop an eye for Greek vases, the best thing you can do is to see as many examples as possible. Many major museums have splendid collections, such as the British Museum in London, the Antikensammlung in Berlin, the Louvre in Paris, the Naples National Archaeological Museum, and the Met in New York. Alternatively, a good introduction to the subject can be found in The History of Greek Vases  by Sir John Boardman (Thames and Hudson, 2001).