Saturday 10 April 2021

"Pre-Dynastic Egyptian Flint Hand Axe" from the De Rustafjaell Collection

The President of the ambitiously-named Association of Dealers and Collectors of Ancient and Ethnographic Art (ADCAEA),  Sue McGovern-Huffman (Sands of Time Ancient Art) is presumably bound by the Code of Conduct of this now somewhat moribund grouping. But that inexplicably does not contain the notion 'when you discuss an antiquity, know what you are talking about".  

When I was teaching archaeology at the University of Warsaw many years ago, the first year had some  foundational hands-on sessions once a week that covered the basics of archaeological method etc. Pretty early in that (because it coincided with the period when other general courses on European prehistory were still dealing with the pre-metal period) we did stone tools with them. So each first year student (even the ones that dropped out in the middle of the year) had a pretty good idea what an indcidentally bashed stone or naturally fractured stone looked like, and what intentional flaking looks like. Once you've had some experience of handling the real thing (and especially if you've tried your hand at knapping too), it's not actually difficult to differentiate the two. There are some cases where there are justifiable doubts one way or the other. But even from the photos (provided there are enough of them and they are a reasonable quality) the majority of stone tools on sale online can be assigned to these three groups. 

So I am a bit puzzled by a reputable antiquities dealer offering something described as a "Large Pre-Dynastic Egyptian Flint Hand Axe, ca. 4500 - 3500 BCE". I presume those dates are supposed to suggest it is "Badarian" or "Naqada" date... but "hand axe"? Wow. Even some of my first year dropouts would put her right there, I hope.  Here's the description:

A large and substantial example, percussion flaked from a piece of reddish-brown flint into a hand axe, with almost the entire upper portion retaining the original flint skin and remaining unaltered from the flint nodule. Percussion flaking was used to detach small flakes of flint from the upper surface by striking the flint with a hammerstone or other implement. Old collection sticker, number 273 attached to the front. for related example see: Payne, Joan Crowfoot, Catalogue of the Pre Dynastic Egyptian Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, (Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 162 - 166, nos. 1338 - 1384; and Needler, W. Predynastic and Archaic Egypt in the Brooklyn Museum (The Brooklyn Museum 1984), pp. 278 - 279, nos. 176 - 178. Dimensions: Height: 8 inches (20.3 cm) Condition: Intact and in very good condition overall. With museum-quality custom mount. A most impressive piece.
In what way "impressive"? It looks like a piece of crap to me. Neither is the mount "museum quality" because the centre of gravity of the object appears not to be above the middle of the small base but to one side of it. I've not checked the parallels she cites. It seems a bit pointless if you look at the photos of the actual object being sold... First of all, a first-year dropout student would tell Ms Huffman that it's not called "skin" but "cortex", a mistake that suggests that the dealer has not "read the book(s)". Secondly, first-year dropout student would tell her that a lot of the flakes here are what is known as "potlid fractures". Thirdly they'd tell her that there is not a single (not a single) flake visible on this object that actually has any combination of the five basic characteristic features of an intentionally struck flint flake. Fourthly, an "axe" of the turn of the Neolithic/chalcolithic in this region of the world (so the dates she gives it) would not be a roughly-chipped unshaped pebble tool made on a river-rolled nodule. In my opinion, this object is not what the dealer is trying to sell it as.  And the ADCAEA dealer wants US $3,500.00 with another $65.00 for USPS Priority Mail International. For what seems to be a bashed-about stone. Neat. But this one comes with a "provenance" (oh yes):
Collection of Colonel Robert de Rustafjaell F.R.G.S., acquired prior to 1909, purchased at one of the Rustafjaell sales held in 1906, 1913, and 1915 by Gustave Maurice Heckscher who then donated to the museum founded by his father; deaccessioned by Heckscher Museum of Art, Long Island, New York, in 2012. Robert de Rustafjaell (1876-1943) was a British collector and author who worked in Egypt as a geologist and mining engineer. After World War I, de Rustafjaell moved to the United States, where he lived under the name Col. Prince Roman Orbeliani.
Hmm. Tom Hardwick, quoted in Ken Griffin's Egypt Centre Collection Blog says this of him:
“Robert de Rustafjaell is one of the strangest and most mysterious figures … A bigamist, a serial absconder and man of many aliases, an amasser of valuable and worthless objects including the oldest paintings in the world on canvas and a relic of the true cross, a Zelig-like figure who turns up in the oddest places.”
Including Ms Huffman's provenance. The text goes on:
He lived for some time in Egypt as a geologist, mining engineer, and owner of the Luxor Trading Co., which also sold antiquities. In 1909 he opened an antiquities shop on the main street at Luxor, which he called the Museum of Practical Archaeology. According to Ludwig Borchardt, it included a considerable number of fakes [...] It was during this time that he formed a collection of Egyptian antiquities, mainly Predynastic, but also acquiring a number of New Kingdom votive cloths from the Hathor shrine at Deir el-Bahari [...], fragments from the walls of Theban tombs (including that of Nebamun), and two groups of papyri and codices [...]. De Rustafjaell was declared bankrupt in London in 1914 and emigrated to America. [...] His collections were dispersed in five sales: Sotheby’s, 19–21 Dec 1906 (550 lots), 9–10 Dec 1907 (245 lots), 20–24 Jan 1913 (1051 lots), Paris 29 May 1914, and New York 29 Nov–1 Dec 1915 (745 lots). [...] While many of the objects are particularly important pieces, a high number of them are fakes and forgeries.
Note that Ms Huffman is not at all sure which of the three sales item 273 was actually sold in. Also that 
De Rustafjaell seems to have numbered his objects in coloured crayons and not paper labels. 

It seems odd to me that in a country where collecting "injun arrowheads" is such a popular pastime, Ms Huffman could not get the opinion of somebody that actually knows their lithics before advertising this. Or if she has, a second opinion might be in order. 

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