Sculpted in Byzantium in the fifth century A.D., the small marble casket once held the bones of an early Christian saint who was probably martyred for the faith.
The hole drilled through the base of the Byzantine cross carved into the side of the sarcophagus allowed sacred "oil of the martyrs" poured over the bones to drip out and anoint pilgrims at the saint's shrine, Dr. Pete N. Nickolas explained.
"It is a fine example of early Christian art and very rare," he said, "but we don't know which saint it was. There's no inscription."
All hobbyists dream of turning their avocation into a paying proposition. Dr. Nickolas and his partner, George D. Lentzeris, are combining family heritage, education and fascination with the ancient world to make that happen.
The men, each 42, grew up in Greek families -- Dr. Nickolas in Ohio, Mr. Lentzeris in Baltimore. From their earliest days they learned Greek and the heritage of ancient Greece, so friendship JTC seemed natural when they met in 1971 as classmates at the University of Maryland Baltimore County studying classical Greece and archaeology.
Their paths diverged when Dr. Nickolas went to dental school and became an Air Force dentist. Mr. Lentzeris completed graduate work in Near Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins University and became a program analyst for the U.S. government.
They resumed their friendship in the late 1970s, after each had married and started a family, meeting one Sunday at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.
"George asked for a dental appointment," Dr. Nickolas said.
They also resumed their mutual interest in the ancient world, but it was not until 1988 that they established Helios -- the name of the Greek sun god -- to buy and sell antiquities from the ancient civilizations along the Mediterranean.
Their stock -- acquired from collectors, other (mostly European) dealers and auctions -- includes objects from 4000 B.C. to medieval times from Egypt, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Holy Land and the Near East.
"I wanted to develop a hobby into a business to upgrade my collection," Dr. Nickolas said. "I wanted to go on to bigger and better things."
Sensitive to possible criticism, mainly from people who are astounded that anyone can buy and sell such ancient objects, the men insist they do not deal in pieces looted or smuggled out of their native lands.
Many countries forbid export of antiquities, although a few, including Israel, allow some exports by licensed dealers, Dr. Nickolas said.
"People have collected antiquities for centuries, even Nero had his own antiquarian," Mr. Lentzeris said. "Great quantities were brought to Europe, and the stuff is recycled as collections are broken up and sold."
Mr. Lentzeris, who lives in North Baltimore, is the academically inclined partner, fascinated by Egyptology.
Although he owns a few small antiquities, Mr. Lentzeris collects old books and prints by Victorian traveler-artists such as Daniel Roberts, who produced beautiful drawings of Egyptian ruins.
A Roberts drawing of the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx shows nearly all of the Sphinx buried in sand except the head -- just as the artist saw it in the mid-19th century.
"He was wonderful," Mr. Lentzeris said. "He captured such details."
Dr. Nickolas, on the other hand, is a field man, "a treasure hunter" who used metal detectors to unearth Civil War relics.
Along with dozens of Civil War objects, the Westminster resident said, "I found a Swedish coin dated 1710 in St. Mary's County and remains of an old Colonial port there, too."
But ancient Greece remained his true love, and after making contact with an antiquities dealer in England, he bought his first pieces.
"They were Greek terra cotta heads, collectible things but small and cheap. Just because something is old, it is not always [monetarily] valuable," Dr. Nickolas said.
Helios has a catalog containing items ranging from the sarcophagus, valued at thousands of dollars, to as low as $5 for widow's mite coins dating from 103 B.C.
Ancient rings, brooches and earrings; Egyptian scarabs; Roman bronze statues; wine amphorae; souvenir pilgrims' tokens from saints' shrines and, occasionally, pre-Columbian artifacts from Latin America also pass through their hands.
Oddball items, including ancient erotica such as phallic symbols, are hot sellers, they said. A mummified hand and foot, reportedly those of an Egyptian princess, was "a show-stopper" at an antiques fair at the Towson Town Center, they said.
"All the kids were fascinated and, they dragged their parents to see it," Dr. Nickolas said. A collector-dealer from the Washington area quickly added it to his personal collection.
Dr. Nickolas has moved up to more valuable pieces such as a fourth century B.C. tetradrachm, a silver coin issued by Lysimachos, one of Alexander the Great's generals. It bears the first known portrait of the Macedonian leader, with a ram's horn growing from his head as a sign of deification.
"That was a pure political gesture," Dr. Nickolas said. "Lysimachos minted that coin with Alexander on one side and his own name on the reverse to show his association with a god."
One of the most difficult things for a collector turned dealer is to learn to sell, and the Helios partners are no exception.
"Sometimes I try not to look for Greek things because it's so hard for me. I want to keep everything, and I can't do it," Dr. Nickolas said.
One item they want to sell -- but cannot because its authenticity has been challenged -- is the clay tablet they call "our mystery piece."
They paid $1,100 for the terra cotta plaque, 6-by-10 inches, at a Washington auction where it was described as a "Sumerian tablet" with hieroglyphics and a hunting scene.
A Baltimore expert pronounced it even rarer, a Luwian inscription in Hittite hieroglyphics dating from 1200 B.C. to 1400 B.C. Baltimore is a treasure house of experts -- Hopkins, UMBC, the Walters Art Gallery, the Baltimore Museum of Art -- whom they consult for advice and guidance.
L "I can't say enough good about them," Dr. Nickolas declared.
But because Luwian is such a rare language, photographs were sent to a Chicago specialist for interpretation. That expert denounced the molded-clay tablet as a fake "because it made no sense in Luwian," Dr. Nickolas said.
He said he thought that it might be in another ancient language.
The tablet was also subjected to thermoluminescence testing, a method of dating terra cotta.
"The report came back that the clay was last baked more than 1,500 years ago, which makes it ancient but not as old as we
thought," Dr. Nickolas said. "It's a mystery."
The catalog is available from Helios, Box 25, Westminster 21157.