Tuesday, May 8, 2018 - by Scott S. Smith
It’s ironic: Los Angeles, the city where the distant past is last month’s movie receipts, boasts one of the world’s greatest collections of antiquities for those who want to own a beautiful and extraordinary piece of history. Barakat Gallery, for decades located on or around Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, recently moved to a two-story, 7,500 square foot building at 941 N. La Cienega, just south of Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, where some of owner Fayez Barakat’s vast treasures finally have the museum-quality exhibition they deserved.
Barakat grew up in a family that had vineyards near Hebron, on the West Bank of the River Jordan in Palestine. From the late 19th century, the Barakats found or were brought antiquities from the area, which they sold at a Jerusalem shop. As a child, Fayez helped archaeologists on their local digs, but had planned to become a medical doctor. When his photographic memory and facility for languages came to the attention of Father James McGuire, he helped him obtain a Fulbright scholarship. But his father, wanting his son to continue to work in the family businesses, hid the university acceptance letter until the deadline passed. Then Dr. Nicholas Glueck, president of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, invited the boy to attend classes taught by renowned scholars and archaeologists, where he developed expertise in a variety of areas, including ancient coinage (rare coins are now an important part of the Barakat offerings).
Museums sometimes criticized the Barakats for accepting artifacts of uncertain origin (often from neighbors claiming to have found them on their own land), because they asserted this encouraged looting. But there is much self-righteous hypocrisy in this attitude, since these institutions largely built their own collections from the booty of plundering imperial armies and resist returning anything to the countries of origin. Their criticism seems at least in part to stem from a desire not to have to compete with private collectors for acquisitions. Barakat has also gone to great lengths to document his sources for everything from jewelry to mummies, across cultures and history from China to the Americas.
Gerald A. Larue, emeritus professor of Biblical History and Archaeology at the University of Southern California, wrote in a Barakat catalog, “The protection of ancient sites is the responsibility of the respective governments. Once an object has been removed from its setting its true provenance is forever lost. Fayez Barakat is salvaging art objects for future generations.”
When I first met Barakat in 1997, he seemed loathe to part with anything: he grew attached to every item because he had the knowledge to fully appreciate its true value. In the following decade he gradually handed over much of the day-to-day work of his galleries to his son and employees, but in 2011 his son died and then his wife passed away shortly thereafter and the gallery was moved to a smaller location that required many of the pieces to be placed in storage.
Paul Henderson, who holds an interdisciplinary degree that fostered his interest in ancient history, discovered Barakat in 2012. He helped with the design of his catalogs and website www.barakatgallery.com and a few years ago took over management of the galleries, including the move to West Hollywood. Barakat remarried a Korean woman and they opened a gallery in Seoul (there are two in Hong Kong, one in London and Amman, and another planned for opening in Marrakech, which Barakat has said is one of his favorite cities in the world).
West Hollywood has a large Russian population, so it’s appropriate that the gallery has a 200-strong collection of Russian religious icons, part of a group bought by Barakat in Jerusalem from priests in the 1960s. One of the most outstanding is a 19th century painting called “Christ the King,” listed for $10,000 (icons typically were not signed by the artists).
The objects from a recent Pre-Colombian display were being reinstalled when I visited in April 2018 and one of the most interesting I was able examine (Barakat allows some pieces to be touched) was a terracotta incensario in the form of a deity from a 1200-1400 A.D. Mixtec burial in Veracruz, Mexico. Items that were buried are often exceptionally well-preserved and this is priced at $24,000.
The West Hollywood has some African antiquities that are 500-1,500 years old, made of terra-cotta, stone, and metals, such as the Ife bronze head from the 16th century that is valued at $600,000. However, a number of factors has made those a challenge to obtain, since foreign armies sent back the best treasures for their nations’ museums, locals sold off relics to private collectors, and the weather in many places and the materials used combined to cause artifacts to disintegrate. Much of what is readily available is early 20th century ceremonial regalia, valued both for its ritual significance and its artistic excellence. The expressionistic faces of African masks were imitated by modern artists like Pablo Picasso (whom Barakat met in Jerusalem and his own “abstract realism” paintings, inspired by Picasso, hang on the gallery’s walls).
West Hollywood also has some prehistoric artifacts, such as the large flint spearhead found in France dated 6000-4000 B.C, which is priced at $18,000.
There many sculptures from Asia, especially Buddhas, including the red-lacquered wood statue of him standing from Myanmar (formerly Burma) that is dated to the 9th-10th centuries and being sold for $900,000, while a gilt bronze one of him sitting, created in Thailand in the 18th century, is listed at $75,000.
The West Hollywood gallery opened a special exhibit on ancient Egypt in May 2018 (coinciding with the display of King Tut artifacts at the California Science Center). One of Barakat’s most important items is the small head of Tut’s father, Akenaten, who started a monotheistic religion the temporarily replaced the Egyptian polytheistic hierarchy. Made of lapis lazuli and dated to 1314 B.C., it is one of the best-preserved of its kind and listed for $1.2 million.
In July, the gallery will have an event “Living with Antiquities,” which will showcase eight spaces which showcasing how to incorporate antiquities and ancient art into design.