By: John Dorfman
Ancient Egypt has always inspired awe. Part of its power lies in the grandeur of its ruins, the “vast and trunkless legs of stone” that Shelley described in his sonnetOzymandias. Part of it is sheer age. Founded over 5,000 years ago, Egyptian dynastic civilization seemed ancient even to the ancients: In Plato’s Timaeus, an Egyptian priest tells Solon that compared to his own people, “you Hellenes are never anything but children.” At least some of the Greeks, like Plato himself, saw Egypt as a source of wisdom from which they had much to learn—a belief that persisted in the West, in various guises, down through early modern times. In the 17th century, the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, who assembled one of the first significant collections of Egyptian artifacts and is often considered the founder of scientific Egyptology, still believed that hieroglyphic texts encoded occult knowledge.
When 19th-century scholars finally deciphered the hieroglyphs, they discovered a less mystical, more down-to-earth culture. But the mystique persisted. As real understanding replaced fantastic imaginings, the appreciation of ancient Egypt for its aesthetic achievements and for its historical importance only intensified. And with the coming of modern archaeology, a huge quantity of art and artifacts began to come on the market and find devoted collectors.
Asked what accounts for the continuing appeal of Egyptian art, Richard Keresey, head of the antiquities department at Sotheby’s New York, says, “I think it is that impression of timelessness and serenity which Egyptian art often conveys so well, and also—when it comes to sculpture, at least—the formal beauty of the disposition of forms.” Some longtime dealers, like Jerome Eisenberg of Royal-Athena Galleries in New York, find that their customers in this field are mainly motivated by aesthetic concerns. “They’re not usually learned or scholarly,” says Eisenberg, “just turned on by ancient Egypt. There’s a handful of collectors who are serious about Egyptology, but mostly it’s historical and aesthetic interest, the appeal of holding something in your hand that’s 2,000 or 3,000 years old.”
G. Max Bernheimer, international head of Christie’s antiquities department, agrees: “I would think it’s more aesthetic. There are not that many scholar-collectors anymore; that was more of an older generation’s way of approaching the ancient world. Most are decorative-minded today.” London dealer Rupert Wace credits blockbuster museum shows like The Treasures of Tutankhamun, TV documentaries and affordable travel to Egypt with spreading interest in collecting. On the other hand, Jamie Ede of Charles Ede Antiquities, also in London, says he continues to meet many scholarly collectors who take the trouble to learn some of the language and master the intricacies of Egypt’s 31-dynasty-long historical record. “This is one area where collectors seem to have a rather academic approach, more so than with, say, Roman antiquities. Egyptian art is quite cerebral and mysterious, so they want to understand the religion and culture, try to pick up a few hieroglyphics.”
Most types of Egyptian artifacts are more or less readily available on the market, except for mummies, which are nonexistent (all in museums), and stone sarcophagi, which are extremely scarce. At the top in terms of rarity, desirability and price are portrait sculptures, especially if they are made of hardstone and especially if they are Pharaonic portraits. In December 2005 Christie’s set and broke the world record twice in one evening with such pieces: First a New Kingdom black granite statue showing Queen Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II (19th Dynasty, 1290–1224 B.C.) carrying a standard sold for $2.3 million. Half an hour later an Old Kingdom limestone (not hardstone) statue portraying Pharaoh Ka-Nefer seated with his family (Fifth Dynasty, 2465–2323 B.C.) brought $2.8 million, still the record for any ancient Egyptian work of art.
At Sotheby’s in December 2008 a greywacke (a kind of hardstone) figure of a kneeling man from the 26th–30th Dynasty (600–350 B.C.) went for $1.6 million, almost double its high estimate. In this case provenance helped the price along. Sotheby’s originally sold the piece in 1835, from the collection of pioneer Egyptologist Henry Salt; it was one of the first antiquities the house ever auctioned. As for stone outer sarcophagi (as distinct from the painted wooden inner coffins), if one were to show up on the market it would command at least $200,000, according to Eisenberg, who says he hasn’t had one in stock for three years.
Of course, not everything Egyptian is so rare or so expensive. In common with all antiquities (Greek, Roman and ancient Near Eastern), Egyptian pieces are relatively affordable, especially when compared with modern and contemporary art. “Museum-quality pieces can be had for under $25,000,” observes Wace. “There are not many areas of the art market where you can do that.” Most Egyptian artworks, says Ede, sell for under $150,000, and the vast majority of what is on the market, “normal everyday things with good provenance,” cost between $5,000 and $50,000.
Thanks to the legendarily dry climate of Egypt, a huge amount of material has survived relatively intact—even wood, which is extremely scarce in the remains of other ancient cultures, such as Greece. In addition, the fact that in death-obsessed Egypt the vast majority of art objects were intended as “grave goods” ensured that objects would be well protected, sealed in subterranean tombs for centuries if not millennia. As a result, says Ede, “there’s a huge number of areas in which you can collect: sculpture, objets de toilette, papyri, headrests, furniture, pottery.”
Among the humbler Egyptian objects available for purchase today are amulets, including the famous small scarabs (abstracted representations of the sacred dung beetle), which can cost as little as $100 and are quite plentiful. Terra-cotta figurines from the period of Greco-Roman domination (332 B.C.–395 A.D.) start at around $500, and heads broken off such small statues start at $100 or so. One area of collecting that is currently popular is ushabti—small, mummiform figurines intended to function as servants to the dead in the afterlife. (A properly equipped tomb was supposed to have 365 ushabtis plus 36 overseer ushabtis, who carried little whips.) Ushabti were sometimes wooden or stone, but most often were made of faience, a glasslike material that is blue or blue-green in color. Prices for these are usually in the $5,000–15,000 range. Bronze is another medium favored by the Egyptians. According to Bernheimer, deities in bronze can be found for around $5,000–7,000. Common subjects are Osiris, Isis nursing her baby son Harpokrates, Osiris and the cat-goddess Bastet.
“I particularly love Egyptian art because there is this huge cross section of materials,” says Ede. “Jet, amber, all sorts of different woods. That’s the most exciting part of it.” The Egyptians were masterful at exploiting the special properties of various materials. Ahead of Christie’s antiquities sale in New York in December, Bernheimer was particularly enthusiastic about a very ancient, Early Dynastic-period (circa 3000–2575 B.C.) serpentinite vessel in the form of a frog. The stone’s texture and greenish color seem to mimic the skin of the amphibian, and the artist discovered aspects of its anatomy in the natural shape of the stone and then cleverly enhanced them. The sculpture was estimated at $20,000–30,000.
Despite the generally stylized and formal quality of Egyptian art, there is a tendency toward realism, foreshadowed very early on by sculptures like the frog vessel. Ede points out that Egyptian art “veered into naturalism” three times. The first was during the Middle Kingdom (11th–13th Dynasties, circa 2040–1790 B.C.). “Look at the portraits of the pharaohs, like Sesostris III,” says Ede. “These were men you really wouldn’t want to mess around with. Their portraits are very moving.” The second efflorescence of naturalism was during the Amarna period in the late 18th Dynasty (circa 1350 B.C.), so called because the pharaoh Akhenaten established the city of Amarna as his capital when he founded a new monotheistic religion centered on the sun god Aten. Typical of Amarna art is the sometimes uncomfortably realistic portrayal of Akhenaten and his family, who appear to have inherited some physical oddities, such as over-elongated chins and unusually full lips. Associated with the reverence for the sun in Akhenaten’s religion was a reverence for nature, which led to close observation and careful representation. Not surprisingly, the Amarna period is very popular with collectors today.
The third and last period of Egyptian naturalism was the Ptolemaic (305–30 B.C.), when a Greek dynasty associated with Alexander the Great ruled the country and adopted Egyptian culture. Ptolemaic portrait heads, which combine Greek and Egyptian characteristics, are beautiful and expressive and can seem almost shockingly modern. “There was a tendency in the past for Egyptologists to regard Ptolemaic art as derivative and therefore second-rate,” says Ede. “I don’t agree. After all, all Egyptian art is derivative, in the sense that the Middle Kingdom draws on the Old Kingdom, and so forth. Late-period material is not particularly original, but it shows great craftsmanship. However, it doesn’t have that visceral strength that the best Amarna-period art has.” Ptolemaic material is relatively plentiful on the market.
One question that comes up more frequently than ever when it comes to Egyptian art collecting—as indeed with all collecting of ancient art—is that of cultural patrimony and the law. News stories frequently call attention to the demands of the Egyptian government for the return of certain pieces in Western museums, which it alleges were illegally acquired. Archaeologist Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, is a past master at headline-grabbing and is known for his outsized personality; in 2006, during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, he gleefully announced, “I am Pharaoh!” This past October the Louvre agreed to give back five fresco fragments from a Theban tomb after Hawass followed through on his threat to sever relations with the French museum and suspend its excavations in Egypt. Currently, Hawass is pursuing the famous portrait bust of Akhenaten’s wife Nefertiti, which is in the Neues Museum in Berlin. (In May 2009 Swiss art historian Henri Stierlin published a book in which he claims that the Nefertiti was actually made by a German artist in 1912 and bears traces of Art Nouveau style.)
Dealers and auction experts say that the buying public has not been scared away by such cases, mainly because Egypt directs its efforts at museums and their high-profile treasures rather than at private collectors, but collectors have become more conscious of legal issues and the need to protect oneself. Egypt regards any ancient artifact taken out of the country after 1983 as illegally exported, and international conventions ratify that date; therefore reputable dealers will not handle objects that lack a collecting history before then. “Provenance is important and becoming increasingly so,” says Ede. “Happily, there are many hundred of thousands of objects that have been on the market for up to 500 years. My personal record is that I had something that was shown in a European woodcut in 1650.” Wace says, “What one is dealing with is pieces that have been in collections for a long time. We wouldn’t buy anything if we didn’t know that its status in the art market is bona fide. Collectors should only buy from people they know will have done the due diligence required before they offer anything.” A good dealer will provide a guarantee, which of course covers authenticity as well as provenance. To detect fakes, it takes long experience
handling a vast number of pieces.
As in so many other areas of the art world, supply is dwindling, which drives up prices. Gone are the days of the early 1960s, when Eisenberg recalls he used to sell inexpensive Egyptian antiquities out the gift shop of the Brooklyn Museum, some for only a few dollars. “Many of the best objects are likely off the market for good, and collectors must often settle for fragmentary pieces. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of collecting to be done, and the wonder and mystery of Egypt remain, waiting to be discovered by a new generation.
Charles Ede Ltd., London 44.20,7493.4944 charlesede.com
Christie’s New York 212.636.2000 christies.com
Royal-Athena Galleries, New York 212.355.2034 royalathena.com
Rupert Wace Ancient Art, London 44.20.7495.1623 rupertwace.co.uk
Safani Gallery, New York 212.570.6360 safani.com
Sotheby’s New York 212.606.7000 sothebys.com