February 16, 2019

Restitution: Met Museum agrees to return its 1st century B.C.E mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh, to Egypt

The Metropolitan Museum has agreed to return its 1st century B.C.E gold-sheathed mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of the high-ranking priest Nedjemankh.  The late Ptolemaic (or Hellenistic) antiquity was purchased via art dealer Christophe Kunicki, who lists himself on his website as a member of the Syndicat Français des Experts Professionnels en Oeuvres d’Art and the Chambre Européenne des Experts d’Art.  

Purchased for €3.5m in 2017, Nedjemankh’s coffin had reportedly been on consignment with the Paris dealer via an unidentified private collector.  Created out of cartonnage in the last century of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, a material used in Ancient Egyptian funerary objects from the First Intermediate Period to the Roman era, the object is made up of layers of linen stiffened with animal glue and layers of gesso. Evidence presented to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and confirmed by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture indicate that the antiquity may have been looted from Egypt in 2011 and exported utilizing fraudulent documents.

Note that the timeframe of the possible plunder, listed by the New York Times, and the Egyptian authorities coincides with the fall of Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak, Egypt's former military and political leader, who served as president of Egypt from 1981 to 2011.  After the so called Arab Spring, Egyptian authorities reported a significant uptick in heritage looting, exacerbated in part by the country's revolution and subsequent political upheaval.

The spartan collecting history information listed for the artifact on the Metropolitan Museum's website states that the antiquity was "officially exported from Egypt in 1971, the coffin has since resided in a private collection."  A second page on the museum's website, which has since been removed, listed the artifact's provenance as follows:

"The coffin was exported in 1971 from Egypt with an export license granted by the Antiquities Organization / Egyptian Museum, Cairo. It belonged to the stock of Habib Tawadrus, a dealer active since at least 1936, with a shop Habib & Company in Cairo opposite Shepheard’s Hotel, and was exported by the representative of the Tawadrus’ heirs to Switzerland. An official translation of the export license was provided by the German embassy in Cairo in February 1977 for the use of the representative and now owner in Europe. The coffin has remained in the family of that owner until its acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum in 2017."

This spartan amount of information, on an ancient object of this significance, drew the attention of blogger Paul Barford in September 2017 shortly after the purchase was announced.


Christophe Kunicki's relationship as an advisor of ancient art purchases to the Metropolitan Museum in New York goes back at least as far as September/October 2014, when his involvement in two purchases was highlighted in Volume 25 Number 5 of the journal Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology as having advised the museum on two other purchases. 

Screen Shot: Volume 25 Number 5, Page 53
Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology
Those objects, memorialized in the screenshot above, were a 26th Dynasty granodiorite head of the Pharaoh Apries, purportedly from the collection of Olivier Cacoub and the 13th Dynasty Egyptian limestone chapel-stele of Kemes in the form of a quadrangular naos resting on a base carved with façades.  The later of these was purportedly from the same "Luxor dealer Tawadros," in the 1960s, whose name is attached to the golden mummiform coffin that has just been repatriated.  It is not known at present if these objects are being given closer examination.

The Met’s management has formally apologized to Dr. Khaled El-Enany, Egypt’s minister of antiquities.

In it's press release the museum added:

 "All of the Museum’s acquisitions of ancient art undergo a rigorous vetting process in recognition of the 1970 UNESCO treaty, in adherence to the Association of Art Museum Director’s Guidelines on the Acquisition of Ancient Art and Archaeological Materials, and in compliance with federal and state laws."

Given that the Met developed a substantial exhibition around this golden-sheathed coffin, one would think that the museum's "rigorous vetting process" would have also included a close analysis of export documentation to check for fabrication and forgery.

A video from the Met Presents series featuring Curator Janice Kamrin and Conservator Anna Serotta talking about the coffin of Nedjemankh can be viewed here.

Upon the artefact's return to Egypt, it has been decided that the repatriated burial coffin will be displayed in the Egyptian Museum of Liberation until the Grand Egyptian Museum opens in 2020.

Notation:  Note this Metropolitan Museum record the name of the Luxor dealer as Tawadrus, while elsewhere in its records it records other objects using the name Todrous.  The trade journal above spelled the name Tawadros.  Another dealer spells the name as Tadross.




By:  Lynda Albertson








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