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March 11, 2024

The wacky illicit world of one Ushabti of the Pharaoh Taharqa

The Cultural Heritage Brigade of Spain's Policía Nacional have completed an investigation into a rare, illicitly trafficked, ushabti. The statuette, holding traditional Egyptian agricultural implements, reproduces the text of Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead and would have been placed in the tomb of the deceased.  Property of the Republic of the Sudan, the funerary figurine was sold to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in the Netherlands by "a Catalan antiques dealer". 

Although unnamed in today's press release, the Spanish police did provide some interesting details regarding the sales transaction for this illicit object, which, in turn, also help us to identify who the unnamed dealer in question is.  

Today's press statement indicates that the Spanish investigation began when the Dutch National Polite forwarded their colleagues in Spain a complaint for aggravated fraud that had been filed in the Netherlands by the director of the museum in Leiden regarding their purchase of a suspect ushabti for Pharaoh Taharqa, the 4th king of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt and the Qore of the Kingdom of Kush from 690 to 664 BCE. 

The press release went on to say that "the complaint stated that an antiques dealer, responsible for an antiques establishment in Barcelona, ​​had sold a sculpture of Sudanese origin to the Dutch museum for 100,000 euros" and that the sales transaction was facilitated using false provenance documentation which was presented to provide a cover to the artefact's illicit origin.  Based on the foregoing, the museum then filed their complaint with the Dutch national authorities and were seeking the return of their purchase price.

To facilitate the sale, the police confirmed that the dealer in question had provided the museum with a digital copy of a handwritten document purportedly dating to May 27, 1967 which, at face value, appeared to have been written by an employee of the Sudanese government.  This document also appeared to attest to the fact that the artefact had left the Sudan for London sometime between 1930 and 1940.  

After careful review of this document, which included follow-up examination involving individuals affiliated with the Embassy of the Republic of Sudan in Spain,, as well as with heritage experts specialising in the illicit trafficking of Egyptian material circulating within the ancient art market, the paperwork provided was determined to be a false attestation.  This technique is sometimes used by sellers of illicit material to increase verisimilitude to a work of fiction through the invention and insertion of details into an object's documentation which are presented as factual, when they are not.

Reviewing this document it was determined that the paperwork presented by the dealer to legitimise this object's circulation contained several discrepancies. The most blatant error on the part of the fraudster(s) was that the forged document referenced Sudan's "Ministry of Archeology", a departmental name that has never existed in this African country.  

In 1967 the competent authority tasked with the protection of cultural heritage in the Sudan was the Sudanese Antiquities Service, abbreviated as the SAS (now the National Corporation for Antiquities & Museums - NCAM).  In 1939 the SAS was linked to the Ministry of Education, and by 1953 to the Ministry of Al Maref.  In addition to the above, the signatory of the falsified attestation referred to himself with the title of "general director" for the aforementioned nonexistent ministry.  And while this named individual does match to a person previously affiliated with the government of Sudan, this person never held a position with this title.  Likewise,  their documented signature on official records differs from the one signed and given to the museum substantiating the objects departure from the country.

During this investigation it was also determined that the artefact was one of several artefacts believed to have been stolen from the Gebel Barkal Museum situated on the right (north) bank of the Nile on the SW edge of modern Karima, Sudan which occurred between 2000 and 2003.

The complaint filed by the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, concluded that based on the evidence of fraud they were seeking a refund of the purchase price from the Catalan dealer.  The Spanish police press report indicates that the person under investigation, if found guilty, would be responsible for a crime of aggravated fraud by involving assets of artistic, historical and cultural heritage, as well as for exceeding the fraud of 50,000 euros for the object's sale to the Dutch museum. 

But just who is the unnamed Catalan dealer? 

Matching the partial photograph of the ushabti for Pharaoh Taharqa depicted on Spain's press release lead me to a more complete rendering of the object on the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden's accession record.  That record indicates that the Dutch museum purchased the sculpture in 2014 via Spain but not much else in the way of detail on its official collection history.  That same year, Jaume Bagot, of J. Bagot Arqueología, a problematic Catalan dealer who has been mentioned frequently on ARCA's blog, was identified as having brought a 25th Dynasty ushabti of similar proportions to Brussels for the 2014 BRAFA art fair.  Unfortunately, the first Pinterest photo of that event wasn't clear enough to confirm if Bagot's artefact was the one the museum had purchased. 

Going back to Bagot's website we can find a "sold" notice for a Ushabti of the Pharaoh Taharqa. 

The provenance for this piece is listed as follows:

‘Family Babeker, Sudan. In Europe since 1930. Family C., Barcelona, prior 1970.’

This seemed to match to the export date on paperwork the Spanish authorities had, but I still wanted to ensure that I had the right artefact and the right doggy documents presenting dealer, before naming him, so I dug a bit deeper.  I then came across an article by Alain Truong which tells us more regarding the provenance of Bagot's 2014 ushabti. That article listed the collection history for the Spanish dealer's ushabti as:

Provenance:  The family of M. Mustafa Abdalla Babeker, Khartoum, Sudan, 1917 - 1930. Collection of Don C. Bes, 1930. Private European collection, 1940. From the archaeological work at the pyramid of Taharqa, the royal necropolis of Nuri, Nubia.

To be 100 percent certain the objects were a match, I then took the image from J. Bagot Arqueología sales record with the black background and overlayed it with the one attached to the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden accession record.  Without a doubt, the two images reflect an object of the same size and proportion and depict the same object. 

It should be noted that this is not the only "Babeker" provenance artefact sold by Bagot.  In 2017 the Catalan dealer brought another ushabti to Brafa, this one of the King Senkamanisken, the third successor of Taharqa, who likewise was a king buried at Nuri (Sudan) and low and behold it too had the same purported provenance.  Did Bagot use the same attestation letter provided to the Dutch museum? 

So with that, I leave you with a pressing question.  To those of you out there who have handled other objects with Mr. Babeker as your assumed touch stone of pristine provenance, what say you? Any comments from Christie's, or Christie's again or  Sotheby's or Axel Vervoordt or anyone else who has bought or sold a Taharqa or a Senkamanisken ushabti since the early 2000s?  

Care to share your details with the Spanish authorities?  

By: Lynda Albertson