Collecting Ancient AntiquitiesProvenance is the term used to describe the history of an archaeological object since it was excavated. This can include where and when it was found, by whom it was owned, where it may have been exhibited or published. Provenance for antiquities is often modest (i.e. "from a deceased estate in London"), but what seems banal now may be interesting to a collector in 100 years, so always keep paper-work associated with an item and sell it with the item if you decide to part with it.
Provenance adds value to an antiquity, and the day when un-provenanced antiquities become un-tradable is rapidly approaching. Un-provenanced objects are generally cheaper, but this is because they will always have a lower market value and most reputable dealers and auctioneers will not buy or sell them. Many countries already ban the importation of un-provenanced antiquities: it makes ethical as well as financial sense to ensure you avoid smuggled goods in your collection.
Even the most experienced dealers can be fooled by photographs, it is not possible to be totally confident in an item without handling it, and even then there may be concerns which require further investigation. This means that you must trust the person selling the item or at least study their returns policy very carefully and be prepared to return an item if you believe it to be fake, if you do not return a fake you are helping a crook to cheat other collectors.
If you are not confident in your ability to detect fakes, take the items to a good museum, a reputable dealer or an auctioneer with a dedicated specialist department, do not email random dealers and expect them to study items for you in depth: they don't have the time. Building a long term dealing relationship with someone you trust is the best way forward. Double-check your purchases with another specialist: good dealers are never offended by their clients' concerns for authenticity.
A good reputation is the most important aspect of the specialist dealer. This is why well-known dealers can charge a premium for their objects: the added cost of the confidence of knowing that you are buying real, provenanced objects. Internet chat groups can be a surprisingly good way of checking someone's reputation, some yahoo-groups have over a thousand members and people will invariably share their knowledge or experiences with others who share their interests.
A good dealer will stick to what they know and thoroughly research everything, consulting colleagues, academics or authorities whenever they are in doubt. Antiquities have been forged for hundreds of years, the Romans even forged Greek sculpture, and technology is forever advancing, so never trust a dealer who cannot qualify why he believes an object is authentic and never trust a complacent response. Dealers call their mistakes their "tuition fees"; it's an ironic joke, but it reflects the belief that the professional must accept responsibility for a mistake, not the client.
Ask the dealer specific questions and judge them on their ability to justify their explanations. Invest in reference books and visits to museums, handle objects in dealers' shops or auctions at every opportunity. Seek alternative opinions on dealers as well as their stock. Good dealers will not be-little someone for asking an apparently simple question: we all specialise in different things and one person's expertise is another's total ignorance in any walk of life. Buy cheap fragments which are genuine to help you get to know the "feel" of ancient pieces.