Friday 12 February 2010

Shabtis of Nesytahi

There has been some discussion in a collectors' forum of another group of shabtis on the European market which has apparently not been documented as an old find. This assemblage is inscribed for a person called Nesy-tahi of the Third Intermediate period (probably 22nd or 23rd dynasty). Dik van Bommel (a shabti collector) suggests that "the hands in opposite position indicate the Tanis area" as the origin of the find. There are no less than twelve of these shabtis on the Nomis Antiquities (Kevork Simon, Van Nuys, Ca 91406) website, some broken-off heads turned into not-very-nice jewellery. That is no way to treat artefacts like these. Malter Galleries also has had quite a few, including job lots of feet fragments. Apparently these shabtis first appeared on the market in 2002 or 2003 (according to Dik van Bommel). A German claims to have the rest of the assemblage after several dealers had taken the poorer examples (Nomis having obtained 100 examples).

The same German asked from where he had obtained his examples ventured "of course my nesh-tahi shabtis come from the same old collection, which nomis gallery years ago has bought. but mines are a little more beautiful and intact". No mention was made of any documentation showing how and when they left Egypt. How unusual then that this "old collector" apparently kept the assemblage in its "as excavated" state, broken examples together with the better examples. The assemblage was only split up when the material came on the market in 2002 or 2003. That seems a shame, and certainly does not seem a very ethical way to treat a preserved assemblage of finds. Which dealer bought the original assemblage? In Germany or in the US?

Dik van Bommel had admitted earlier that he had himself bought one of these shabtis for his collection and adds a neat justification:
Of course it is possible that the ushabti's are from an illegal import. But imho it is also possible that someone had them already for decades. It was only for 8, 10 years ago that the antiquities market through the internet became popular. That made it possible to sell off less important items. In a lot of old collections and musea plenty of boxes are stashed away with tablets, ushabtis and other small less important antiquities. They did not came to the market before because they had no value for the high end collectors or musea. The Internet opened a new market and made it possible to own for a low budget a part of history to study, enjoy and protect. We can't rule out that the ushabtis came to market as a lot through a local 'brick and mortar' auction. At that period nobody was concerned about provenance for these kind of items and even today it is extremely hard to get the name of the previous owner(s) if you buy through an auction house.
While it is indeed possible that this material was lying around in an old collector's or dealer's basement, this cannot be used as the way to explain away every single previously undocumented find coming onto the market. In the scenario van Bommel is suggesting as a possibility explaining away the sudden appearance of these objects en masse, the tomb of somebody called Nesytahi was found and emptied and the finds exported from Egypt several decades ago. The original tomb would have contained 365+ of these figures. Half of the original assemblage, broken bits and all, went to one collector, who stashed them away somewhere, and did not think of selling any to anyone at the time. The other half simply disappeared into thin air. As far as can be seen at present, not a single one of the 200 or so other ones went to a museum, or collection where they have been noted. Then in 2002 the old collector dies and the heirs find a box of shabtis, which they sell to a dealer, who the sells them to other dealers, among whom were Nomis and Malters. Neat, but is this what really happened? I am sure it is comfortable for collectors to think it was. It means they do not have to ask where something came from, the auction house which loses the name of the previous owner is convenient isn't it?

Van Bommel points out that the Internet allows the so-called "minor" (from the point of view of their use in archaeology, this term is meaningless) items from a site to find a market. But this is precisely te problem, this is what encourages looting. No longer does the shovel-wielder have to find a Getty-worthy bronze statue of Hercules to make a dinar or two, now its enough to get any old collectable that that some geegaw-hungry collector will buy no-questions-asked.

But van Bommel is wrong thinking that before the internet, finds like shabtis and cuneiform tablets were thought uncollectable. On the contrary, they always were highly collectable. It was this sort of thing that was being sold even in US department stores like Maceys in the earlier part of the previous century (according to dealer Jerome Eisenberg) They still are highly collectable, and the internet would be a tool facilitating those that would buy from the men who buy from the looters in finding a market for the illicit goods, with nobody asking any questions, and nobody knowing what is coming from where and where it is all going. Which of course is what we all know perfectly well is going on.

Vignette: is this shabti from an unknown tomb in the Tanis region? When was this tomb emptied and by whom? Who was Nesytahi? We will never know now, but excavating their tomb properly would probably have told us.


Scrabcake said...
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Paul Barford said...
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