Monday 2 February 2009

"The master of the Opener of the Roads, the Saint of the Tent exists" - but his tomb has been rifled by collectors

The home-grown hieroglyphists puzzle over the symbols.
"wn nb p(A) wp-wA.wt Dsr(w) iAm.t is - that's Wennebpawepwaoetdjeseroeiamet, is there a title to start with? Does the name starts with pA-(n)-wp-wA.wt or perhaps pA-n-inpw? Mysteries to solve".
Not least is the mystery where these archaeological finds come from and how they got to the dealers who are currently selling them by the bucketload. "As for the provenance of this shabti, all i get is that they are coming from a dutch collection and i can't get anymore informations. Bron told me that there are hundreds of these shabtis left. And i have seen many of them on ebay, all slightly diffrents". That's Bron Lipkin (see below) [see also the update at the bottom].

A collector called Seshan (Moodley? I have a recollection he's South African) says "I have three of these little shabti's from the same owner" Another collector called Cédric P. near Montpellier has "a dozen of these shabti myself now. And you can find some of them on Bron's site, and 3 or four more on ebay. Rolf has one on Hélios Gallery."

Here is what the Lipkin (Collector Antiquities) was offering [they have since been withdrawn from sale - this is an old link 8/2/09, but the page may nevertheless still be visible for a while]:
Four interesting small inscribed shabtis.[...] All approx 55mm All intact Late Period. Circa 500 BC Price: 75 each GBP. No provenance is mentioned.

Here's the Helios Gallery (Rolf Kiaer , Lower Kingsdown, Wiltshire UK) one [they were later withdrawn from sale, the link is now broken 8/2/09]: A pale blue/green glazed faience ushabti figure of squat form with a moulded hieroglyphic inscription extending along the full length of the back. Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BC Intact, the small brown patches are accretions which were created during firing. Size: 5.9 x 2.4 cms Ex. private collection, Denmark.

and here was an eBay one (Stormbroek antiquities/ Ancient Art Gallery Stormbroek BV, Ekkersrijt 4411, Son en Breughel, Netherlands - the address is an industrial estate just north of Eindhoven, proprietor seems to be A.C. Wouters):
17472 Ancient Egyptian faience Ushabti with hieroglyphic textAncient Egyptian faience Ushabti with hieroglyphic textLate Dynastic Period c. 26th Dynasty, 664 - 525 BCHeight : 5.8 cm" No provenance is given
Stormbroek seems to have been one of the dealers that was first to offer these items. They seem to have been telling their clients that the material came from a 'Dutch private collection'.

Dik van Bommel, knowledgeable collector of ushabti figurines writes:"Where does this batch come from, is it fresh (illegal) or comes it from a attick ;-/. I did not know of it's existence for 6 month's or so". Confirmation of this artefact's relatively recent appearance on the market in Egypt too comes from Seshan: "I know a very god friend that lives in Egypt and sells Egyptain oranments to Austrila, South Africa and has had his fingers in the illegal trade too. [...] He told me he has seen at lest 3 of these shabtis in quetsion in Egypt over the past few months. But his asking price is more than what they are sold for than stormbroek etc. I would assume if you buy in bulk etc you would get a better price.Therefore I would say more than likey they are a new find."

So let us pose a hypothesis. So far (almost) no evidence has been forthcoming from the dealers or collectors that these objects were outside Egypt before 1970, or 1983 or whenever. In fact almost everything seems to point to them being recent finds which have only in the past few months appeared on the market, but we learn that one dealer seems to know that there are "hundreds" of them. One dealer is telling its clients that they came from a "Dutch collection" (Stormbroek), another (Helios) says a "Danish collection" - both unnamed. But then, if they are only just now appearing on any market, how long were they in these "collections" for? Are these not just euphemisms? The collectors on the forum seem to be in little doubt that these are fresh finds illegally exported.

What is interesting is that two of these are members of the ADA whose code of conduct involves the dealers undertaking to

"establish the identity of the vendor and obtain a warranty that they have good title to the objects and where applicable have confirmation from the vendor that the item has been exported or imported in conformity with local laws" and "not to purchase or sell objects until I have established, to the best of my ability, that such objects were not stolen from excavations, architectural monuments, public institutions or private property".
we note that it says "excavations" rather than "archaeological site". One vendor (who is a qualified Mesopotamian archaeologist with a degree from The Institute of Archaeology, UCL in London - like me) claims the object they are selling is from a "Danish collection" which he however does not name nor say how long it was in that collection, the other offers no provenance data whatsoever. This is despite the fact that both of them will be aware that there is no real evidence that these objects left Egypt more than a short time ago. If they have evidence to the contrary, it is notable that they do not mention it in their sales offer. Why not? The ADA is unlikely to take action over this since its code of conduct is so fluffily phrased that it means next to nothing in cases like the one postulated here.

What about the collectors who have themselves decided these objects are a fresh find? Does anyone on the ancient artifacts forum suggest that it is in any way unethical to buy these items? (No). Does anyone point out that the information from the dealers who are selling this stuff could be used to trace back the trail of where they are coming from and maybe punish those responsible for the looting of this ancient gentlman's tomb and smuggling the items out of Egypt? (No). Do they think if we can find out where these items came from and what else was found in the tomb we may yet be able to salvage some archaeological informations? (No). All they are interested in is reading the hierolyphics and having the ushabtis in their scattered ephemeral personal collections in their homes. The fact that yet another unique archaeological context seems to have been trashed in recent months so they can play Champollions and have their living room mini-museums seems not to particularly worry them. I am sure the looters are happy too that the collectors and dealers are not too bothered and not asking too many questions, I bet they are out there now looking for more archaeological objects (shiny bits of faience, some brightly coloured cartonage pieces, some mysterious pieces of papyrus) to dig up and flog off to no-questions-asked dealers and collectors.

The collectors here must share the blame for the looting when we all know that there ARE on the market shabti figures - Niek de Haan has some in his collection - with good licit provenances which could be bought instead of this apparently dodgy material. Where are the ethics of collecting?

UPDATE 8th Feb.
Collector Cedric P. has been trying to get to the bottom of where the shabtis he bought came from (a bit late now after he's bought them one would have thought). He reports:
it seems that most of them are now comming from an English dealer who has hundreds of them. I asked dealers in Spain England USA and Italy, they all say that they came in the first place from England. for exemple this is the answer i receved this morning from a Spanish dealer about the wenneb shabtis."I
get all my antique items from a specialist dealer in the UK.
This means that they are purchased within Europe with no restrictions."But no one accept to give me the name of this dealer.
Well, this is interesting. Even though they are being sold abroad as "from a Dutch collection" and an English dealer is saying they are from a "Danish collection", there is an (unnamed) English dealer who apparently has a whole group of them. I wonder where he says they are from?

If their origin was all legitimate and above board one might wonder why that dealer is not - as far as I can see - openly advertising "I have several hundred of these legitimately exported items" to the collector. Instead (from what is being said on the forums) it seems they are contacting other dealers behind scenes "pssst... do you want to buy one of these?" and selling them cheaper than the price they eventually reach on the open market. What does that suggest?

Photo, from Bron Lipkin's former sales offer.


Unknown said...

this is fascinating, I have quite a little story to tell on this topic and I have quite a few questions. Does this mean the artifacts sold are still necessarily real?

Unknown said...

This is very interesting! I have quite a little story to tell on this topic, and quite a few questions. Does this mean that the artifacts sold are still necessarily genuine?

Unknown said...

this is very interesting! I have quite a little story to tell on this topic, and quite a few questions. Does this mean that the artifacts being sold are still necessarily genuine?

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