As It Happens

Buyers bid big on garden statues believed to be ancient Egyptian relics

A U.K. family selling a variety of items at auction got way more than they bargained for when a pair of statues they believed to be replicas sold for a price that suggests they're actual antiquities.

Mander Auctioneers sold a pair of sphinx statues for £195,000

Mander Auctioneers sold a pair of heavily-weathered sphinx statues for 195,000 pounds, or $330,000 Canadian dollars. (Submitted by James Mander)

When a U.K. family sold their home and auctioned off a variety of items left behind last weekend, they made a surprising £195,000 (around $330,000 Cdn) for what they thought was a pair of worn out garden ornaments.

According to the auction house, the buyers were an international gallery specializing in antiquities — and they recognized the two carved stone statues as genuine artifacts.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine they'd be Egyptian, or ancient Egyptian," auctioneer James Mander told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It's just not something you'd see in a normal kind of visit to a house…. It never even occurred to me, really."

The statues run about a metre long and resemble a sphinx, with the head of a human and the body of a lion, which Mander noted as symbolizing strength.

The previous homeowners bought the statues from another auction for £300 ($509 Cdn), thinking they were 18th century replicas. At that time, about 12 or 15 years ago, one of the heads was decapitated.

"They had a local builder, very crudely [as] evident in the picture, sort of cement it back on," the auctioneer said.

Mander Auctioneers listed the statues for the same price that the family bought them, even though they had been heavily weathered with time. They didn't expect that the bids would go even higher.

James Mander is an auctioneer and valuer at Mander Auctioneers in Suffolk, U.K. (Submitted by James Mander)

"One of the phone bidders shouted out 5,000 quite early on and we thought that was a bit crazy," Mander said. "Then it crept very steadily up to 100,000."

The bidding process also took longer than usual. Normally, the auction house can sell two lots per minute. But the statues alone took them 15 minutes to sell for £195,000, or around $330,000 Cdn.

At the auction, one of the bidders thought that the statues could be Roman, which would make them 2,000 years old. But if they turn out to be genuine Egyptian antiquities, the statues would have to be 3,000 years old. 

While their true origins are yet to be determined, Mander thinks the statues could have been bought by young, wealthy men travelling through Europe in search of culture, literature and art. That was a 17th and 18th century custom known as the Grand Tour. 

Many countries are questioning those sales and whether they could have really been legitimate at the time. Some are even reclaiming their property that spread across the world.

As for whether these so-called garden ornaments could also have a claim, the auctioneer doesn't know.

"I think it's a legitimate concern, certainly. I've no idea. But to be honest, it's not something we sell often and probably [will] never sell again," he said. "The buyers are an international gallery and they specialize in antiquities … so they seem much more OK and familiar with the process and the due diligence. So I guess that will come out in time."

The statues are about a metre long and resemble a sphinx, with the head of a human and the body of a lion, which the auctioneer noted is a symbol of strength. (Submitted by James Mander)

Mander thought the sale to be "quite funny" because some of the best sales he's made from a home auction go for £10,000 or £12,000 per lot. 

"It's a nice lump of money. You can go on holiday or buy a car," he said.

"But this is the price of a house, so I think it's kind of a life-changing amount of money for them. So the nice part is they're going to pay off their mortgage and be worry-free in terms of finances."

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with James Mander produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now