Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.15

Fredrik Hagen, Kim Ryholt, The Antiquities Trade in Egypt 1880-1930. The H.O. Lange Papers. Scientia Danica. Series H, Humanistica, 4, vol. 8.   Copenhagen:  Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2016.  Pp. 335.  ISBN 9788773044001.  300.00 DKK.  

Reviewed by Paul Edmund Stanwick, New York City (

Scholars have tapped diverse sources over time to establish and deepen our understanding of ancient Egypt and its material remains. Archaeology is a primary tool, and various objective and subjective analytical tools based on the observations of the remains themselves. Ancient texts contribute as well. A more unusual kind of resource is represented by the studies of firsthand accounts of the purchase of antiquities in the past two centuries. These studies mostly tell the history of those recent eras and sometimes yield new information about the Egyptian sculptures, papyri and other remains that were discovered and sold. This is what authors Fredrik Hagen and Kim Ryholt set out to do in their new book on the antiquities trade in Egypt during the heyday of collecting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Their book blends storytelling and scholarship. It furthers a tradition of analyzing and publishing accounts of purchasing antiquities in Egypt. Two examples immediately come to mind. An early one is Jean Capart’s 1936 book in which he published the letters of the American businessman and Egyptologist Charles Edwin Wilbour (1833-1906), whose collection was donated to the Brooklyn Museum. 1 A more recent example is Ann C. Gunter’s 2002 book on the travels of American businessman Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), who founded the Freer Gallery of Art to house his collections from Egypt and elsewhere. 2 What differentiates Hagen and Ryholt’s book from its predecessors is its exclusive focus on the mechanics and personalities of the antiquities trade and the authors’ broader scope of inquiry across a wide range of source material.

As a springboard for their research, Hagen and Ryholt examine material from the travel diaries of the Danish Egyptologist H.O. Lange (1863-1943) who visited Egypt in 1899-1900 and 1929-1930. Lange was a professor of Egyptology at the University of Copenhagen and Chief Librarian at the Royal Library, and he successfully secured funding to acquire antiquities on behalf of Danish institutions. Beside the diaries, Lange left letters, photographs, notebooks, a small personal antiquities collection and related archival material. The authors bring in other scholarship, travel memoirs and travel guides of the period as well as museum records, private archives, and Egyptian newspapers. The book is a heady brew that illuminates the sometimes legal, sometimes illegal (or morally questionable) dealings of a century ago that are the precursors to today’s attitudes and practices. The broad arc of the story finds many parallels in today’s illegal trade and similarly invokes sadness for the losses and damage.

Hagen and Ryholt are careful to state that they are attempting to keep their moral views out of the study (p. 10). They aim for an objective viewpoint. Anyone looking for a polemical treatment will not find it here. Instead, the book tells the history and provides the basis for further study into the antiquities trade.

The first and largest section of the book is devoted to describing the complex network of people and institutions involved in finding and selling antiquities in Egypt. These include local inhabitants, excavation workers, consular agents, archaeologists, the antiquities service, and professional dealers. There is an extended discussion of consular agents, representatives of Western governments in Egypt whose primary role was to advance the commercial interests of their appointing nation, but who also collected as well as brokered the sale of objects to Western institutions. There is much information about the history of the Salle de vente in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which sold “surplus material” from the museum’s holdings. The text details the geography of the antiquities market. Not surprisingly, Cairo and Luxor, with their large concentrations of visitors interested in acquiring antiquities, serve as the primary hubs of activity.

The first section is enlivened by a significant number of historical photos and illustrations of locales, dealers’ shops and objects for sale. These images can contribute to the history of objects. For example, in a photo of a gallery of the well-known Cairo dealer Maurice Nahman (1868-1948), I recognize a colossal nummulitic limestone head of a queen now in Alexandria’s Graeco-Roman Museum (fig. 70, against the wall in the middle far left of photo; the museum inventory number is 21992). 3 The museum’s Journal d'Entrée records the sculpture as entering the collection in March 1926 as a purchase (without naming a dealer), and a provenance of “Nord du Delta,” presumably provided by the dealer. The Graeco-Roman Museum’s purchases from the market parallel those of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo described by Hagen and Ryholt (p. 51).

Egypt’s antiquities laws are discussed at length and summarized in a quick reference table (p. 138). The laws put progressively greater limits and controls on acquisition and export. It would be interesting to assess, perhaps through more quantitative data, the impact of those laws on curbing illegal excavation and smuggling. The anecdotal evidence provided by the authors suggests that illegal activity and “creative” smuggling ideas grew, while legal acquisitions became more costly and more dependent on knowing how to pull the levers and have the right connections. One unfortunate side effect of these controls was further damage to antiquities. Lange recounts how one dealer suggests breaking statues into pieces that will be granted export licenses more easily. The authors cite an anecdote from the British Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934) regarding cutting up papyrus fragments and concealing them in books of tourist photographs that were sent to London (p. 142).

Dealer-supplied provenances sometimes accompany objects into the records of museums. While such provenances already have a figurative question mark beside them, Hagen and Ryholt’s comments underscore how tenuous these provenances can be. Antiquities could travel to different parts of Egypt through multiple re-sales (p. 126). Find spot information could be manufactured to enhance the value of objects to be sold (pp. 151-152). “Discoveries” of antiquities may have been staged for visiting dignitaries, in which objects were obtained specifically for the purpose of having them excavated on cue (p. 152). Moreover, getting any provenance information, let alone accurate information, could be challenging, especially when the objects were obtained illegally (p. 53).

Hagen and Ryholt devote considerable discussion to fakes and forgeries. The extent and longevity of this practice in Egypt and the skills employed were a bit of an eye opener. An interesting tidbit is that forgers in Luxor at least as far back as the 1930s kept scholarly publications that assisted their attempts at authenticity (p. 148). Experienced Western buyers did not always agree on whether a specific object was genuine and sometimes consulted with native forgers to form a more definitive opinion, as in an instance described by the eminent German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt (1863-1938) (pp. 150-151). The book recounts the story of the two heads of “Amarna princesses,” i.e., royal women from the time of Pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1352-1336 B.C.), which Lange acquired for the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (inventory numbers AEIN 1669 and 1677), and are now both thought to be likely forgeries (pp. 152-157). I did not find a mention of the practice of embellishing antiquities to improve their sale value, such as adding inscriptions or re-cutting damaged areas. A possible case from Lange’s era is the statue of a queen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inventory number 89.2.660), which may have had a Cleopatra cartouche added in modern times. 4 Indeed, Hagen and Ryholt quote a 1906 guidebook that notes that forgers have learned to carve cartouches expertly (p. 147).

There could be significant competition for acquiring objects (p. 117) and determined efforts to keep objects in Egypt. The story of an extremely rare bronze statue of an elite Roman from Egypt is recounted in a discussion of the Qena-based dealer Sadic Girgis Ebed (p. 259). The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek proposed to purchase the statue in 1930, but was prevented by the efforts of Pierre Lucien Lacau (1873-1963), Director of the Antiquities Service, and Evaristo Breccia (1876-1967), Director of the Graeco-Roman Museum, to keep the statue in Egypt. The two men arranged for the Egyptian government and the city of Alexandria to jointly put up the funds for the statue, which then went to the Graeco-Roman Museum (inventory number 22902). 5

The second and shortest section of the book describes the acquisition of papyri. This is mostly about Lange’s history of purchases, both during his time in Egypt and afterwards. Unlike the preceding section, which draws on diverse material, the authors adopt a much more limited focus because of the dearth of published accounts about collecting pharaonic papyri. The most significant part of this section tells the story of the acquisition of the extraordinary Roman-era temple library from Tebtunis that includes literary texts, scientific works, and historical narratives (pp. 178-180).

The third and final section is a useful who’s who list of several hundred antiquities dealers. Those mentioned by Lange and his teacher Valdemar Schmidt (1836-1925) are the starting point and the list is augmented through other sources. Some entries are as brief as a sentence, and others offer more detailed biographies. The information greatly extends what is available in other publications. 6 Some Classical sculptures illustrated as being in the estate of the Swiss trader and antiquities dealer André Bircher have had a more extended scholarly life than noted by Hagen and Ryholt (p. 208), owing to their appearance in Paul Graindor’s 1937(?) book on sculpture in Roman Egypt. 7

Six appendices on diverse topics provide further reference material.

Apart from the suggestions above, there are a couple of additional points. The book is well written, but it gives the impression of being composed as a series of separate studies that were joined together rather than written as a flow of logically sequenced chapters. This is a style point and not meant to detract from the well-researched content. I would also have liked to see an easy-to-reference overview of the objects that Lange acquired, their museum inventory numbers and what new information the Lange archives provided about the objects. Hagen and Ryholt provide this data piecemeal throughout the book and a summary view would have been welcome.

The book will appeal to Egyptologists interested in the antiquities trade; the study serves as a fine reference work in this respect. Classicists interested in the trade can have a look as well. As a side note, a number of Classical antiquities appear in the dealer photos and it would be interesting to see whether their subsequent history could be told.


1.   Jean Capart, ed., Travels in Egypt (December 1880 to May 1891): Letters of Charles Edwin Wilbour (Brooklyn, 1936).
2.   Ann C. Gunter, A Collector’s Journey: Charles Lang Freer and Egypt (Washington, D.C., 2006).
3.   Sabine Albersmeier, Untersuchungen zu den Frauenstatuen des ptolemäischen Ägypten (Mainz am Rhein, 2002), cat. no. 13, pl. 32a-b.
4.   Ibid., p. 350.
5.   Hagen and Ryholt do not reference, and were perhaps unaware of Breccia’s version of the story in his book, Le Musée Gréco-Romain, 1925-1931 (Bergamo, 1932), p. 65. The full statue appears in Götz Lahusen and Edilberto Formigli, Römische Bildnisse aus Bronze: Kunst und Technik (Munich, 2001), pp. 209-210, cat. no. 125.
6.   Such as Morris L. Bierbrier, Who Was Who in Egyptology, 4th edition (London, 2012).
7.   Hagen and Ryholt figs. 134, 136 and 137/138 appear in Paul Graindor, Bustes et statues-portraits d'Égypte romaine (Cairo, n.d., 1937?) as nos. 40, 20 and 58, respectively. Hagen and Ryholt fig. 134 is also in Hans Rupprecht Goette, “Kaiserzeitliche Bildnisse von Sarapis-Priestern,” MDAIK 45 (1989), p. 174, no. 5. Hagen and Ryholt figs. 136 and 137/138 are also in R.R.R. Smith and Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Last Statues of Antiquity (Oxford, 2016), as nos. LSA-1028 (as possibly modern) and LSA-1561, respectively. Discussion and bibliography of the latter two appear on the Last Statues of Antiquity website/database at: Last Statues of Antiquity.

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