The Metropolitan Museum of Art played the role of deus ex machina late last week, agreeing to purchase a trove of Egyptian antiquities that were about to go on the block at Bonhams in London, consigned by a St. Louis archaeological society. Archaeologists and historians alike had assailed the auction, fearing that the nearly 4,000-year-old artifacts would disappear into the hands of private collectors.
Neither Bonhams nor the Metropolitan Museum issued press releases about this, but the tale is easily pieced together with information from a short Associated Press article, Bonhams and other sources.
Bonhams had described the pieces as “an important Egyptian tomb group from Harageh Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, probably the reign of Sesostris II, circa 1897-1878 B.C.” Known as the Treasure of Harageh, they were discovered by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie and excavated in 1913-14 “from Tomb 124 at Harageh, the Fayum, near Lahun.” They were given to the St. Louis Society Inc. of the Archaeological Institute of America in return for its contributions to underwriting the dig. (Bonhams has more about the provenance here.)
The AP said the pieces were shown at the St. Louis Art Museum until two years ago, when they were returned to the Society and placed in storage. Society members decided they could no longer afford that cost.
The AIA itself reprimanded the St. Louis Society, issuing a statement saying:
The AIA has learned with the deepest concern that the AIA St. Louis Society proposes to auction certain antiquities in its possession. The St. Louis Society has a long history within the AIA, but, at the same time, is a registered non-profit independent of the national AIA. The national office of the AIA was not consulted prior to this decision and only became aware of the pending auction when an AIA member reported that the antiquities were being offered on an auction house website. We are urgently investigating this matter and are working to find a solution that conforms to our firmly expressed ethical position concerning the curation of ancient artifacts for the public good.
The lot (No. 160) in the Oct. 2 sale that was withdrawn at the 11th hour consisted of 37 pieces: Five banded travertine objects, including “a small 'magical jar' vase with a stopper”; seven silver cowrie shells; 14 silver-mounted shell pendants; 10 silver and hard-stone inlaid jewelry elements; and “a unique silver jewel in the form of a bee, in three-dimensional form, inlaid in the round with lapis lazuli, carnelian and glass.” The presale estimate was £80,000 - 120,000 (US$ 130,000 - 190,000). The price paid by the Met was not disclosed. But it's too bad rescues like this don't happen more often.
A separate piece with the same provenance, an alabaster-travertine headrest (lot 162), was not withdrawn and sold for £27,500 (US$ 44,182), including the premium.
When and whether the Met, which owns 26,000 objects from the Paleolithic period to the 4th Century A.D., will display this group is unclear. But you can find other objects from Harageh (Tomb 72) at the National Museum of Scotland, which is analyzing the jewelry it owns from the tomb and holding a workshop on it on Oct. 16, according to Margaret Maitland, the curator of Egypt and the ancient Mediterranean there.
Judith H. Dobrzynski