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Monday, 18 July 2022

These are a Few of My Favourite Things!

The blog post for this week is written by Jeanne Whitehurst, who has completed her Certificate of Egyptology from the University of Manchester. She moved to Egypt over ten years ago, just before the revolution. Initially, she lived in Luxor, overlooking Karnak Temple, but now she lives in Aswan overlooking the First Cataract. She was extremely fortunate to have worked with Ted Brock on the sarcophagus of Merenptah (KV 8) as a volunteer.

The Middle Kingdom (c. 2030–1650 BC), which encompasses the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties, involved many changes including the ideology of kingship, the organization of society, religious practices, afterlife beliefs, and relations with neighbouring peoples. We can see evidence of this through architecture, sculpture, relief decoration, stelae, jewellery, personal possessions, and literature. Many Middle Kingdom monuments are poorly preserved because Egyptian temples dedicated to deities were often replaced by succeeding kings, which has led to almost no Middle Kingdom temples left standing. Numerous Middle Kingdom pyramids were constructed with mud-brick cores that eroded after their limestone casing was removed. This is regrettable as it was an era of beautiful artwork made with great skill and delicacy.

One of the treasures can be found in the Open Air Museum at Karnak Temple, The White Chapel, built during the reign of the pharaoh Senwosret I (fig. 1). This ruler was the second pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty, who was the first king of The Middle Kingdom to begin a large building project. During the Eighteenth Dynasty, it was dismantled and used as foundations in the Third Pylon of the temple. The chapel is constructed of limestone and is approximately 6.8m (22ft) x 6.5m (21ft) around its raised base and 3.8m (12ft) high. The orientation was from north to south when it was originally part of the temple complex with a stepped ramp on these two sides. There are four interior pillars which hold up the roof, surrounded by twelve exterior pillars making four rows of four columns. Originally, it may have been used as a festival kiosk for Senwosret I’s Sed-festival. However, it was later converted to a barque shrine during the reign of Amenemhat III or Amenemhat IV, with an altar of red granite placed in the centre. It was used for this purpose until it was dismantled during the Eighteenth Dynasty!

Fig. 1: The White Chapel

The chapel is beautifully decorated in raised relief depicting the Sed-festival. The hieroglyphs are beautifully carved with intricate detail, especially those of feathers, crowns, baskets, birds, and snakes (fig. 2). For example, there are three different types of snakes, the horned viper and two cobras; the spitting cobra, with its zigzag pattern under its head and drawn in a strike position, and the Egyptian Cobra, which is shown in a variety of defence postures. The lower registers around the outside of the chapel are inscribed in sunk relief. It shows different personifications of the Nile, but more importantly all the nomes of Egypt at that time. The nomes of Upper Egypt are written on the West side whilst those of Lower Egypt are on the opposite Eastern side. I know there are a myriad of favourites in Karnak Temple, but this is a haven of tranquillity, an ideal place to study and contemplate in beautiful surroundings.

Fig. 2: Detail of the White Chapel

In contrast, Buhen was a massive fortress located on the west bank of the Nile in Lower Nubia (ancient Wawat, now Northern Sudan), 156 miles south of Aswan. The fortress was constructed during the reigns of Senwosret I and Senwosret III during the Twelfth Dynasty and both pharaohs were later worshipped as deified rulers at a temple on the site. The fortress was built south of a sprawling Old Kingdom settlement from which copper ore was mined and then transported north to Egypt. The fortress was occupied throughout the Middle Kingdom until the New Kingdom and isolated communities continued to reside here until the waters of Lake Nasser submerged the site in 1964 (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Buhen in the 1960s

The Egyptians built fifteen fortifications along the banks of the Nile in Lower Nubia (fig. 4). All these fortresses had four main purposes, to secure control over Lower and Upper Nubia, to control the commercial routes from Kush, support for pharaonic armies in campaigns against Kush, and to stop raids by the Kushites. The fort covered an area of 13,000 square metres, extending more than 150 metres in length, and was defended by a 10-metre-high enclosure wall made of brick and stone with a surrounding moat. It ran all around connecting the northern and southern spur walls fitted with towers at regular intervals. A towering gateway on the western side gave access to the waterfront’s two quays. There were bastions all around apart from the eastern side, with loopholes inserted for archers to defend the fortress. The entrance was protected by enormous wooden doors.

Fig. 4: Location of the fortresses

Inside the walls was a citadel—whose interior was set out on a grid system with the buildings being separated by streets—there was a two-storied garrison, a commandant’s palace, storage magazines, and a temple to Horus of Buhen (fig. 5). It is thought around 1,000 soldiers were housed there. Apart from the plans of the site, which I love, the reason it is a favourite is because the Nubian Museum contains some old photographs taken during the excavation of the site. These stirred my imagination, wishing I could be there to see it. Sadly, it is now under the waters of Lake Nasser with just a model of the site on view.

Fig. 5: The relocated temple of Buhen

I love the jewellery of the Middle Kingdom as it is of the highest quality, both sides just as beautifully made. The decoration may be birds, plants with animals, quite often lions and bulls, royal titulary, and the hieroglyphs for protection, joy, and life (fig. 6). They used a variety of techniques, including openwork and granulation, the latter being a type of decoration in which minute grains or tiny balls of gold are applied to a surface in geometric or linear patterns or massed to fill in parts of the decoration. This technique was known in Western Asia and Egypt. It had perhaps been brought from Asia into Egypt as the tomb of Khnumhotep II (BH3) at Beni Hasan depicts “Hyksos” bringing tools for metal production.

Fig. 6: Pectoral of Sithathor

During the late Middle Kingdom, princesses were buried with sumptuous finery near the pyramids of the pharaohs. Sadly, the number of finds is limited as many tombs were plundered. Although there were other grave goods, I would like to concentrate on the jewellery of Princess Khnumet as I think the standard of workmanship is outstanding. Khnumet’s tomb was found by Jacques de Morgan in the pyramid complex built by her father, Amenemhat II at Dahshur, about 30km (about 19 miles) south of Cairo. Although the pyramid was in a deplorable state, around the west enclosure wall de Morgan found three underground galleries. The first gallery excavated belonged to the king’s daughters, Khnumet and Ita, both bodies were inside three containers but in a poor state. However, around Khnumet’s neck was a beautiful broad collar, which has gold falcon-headed terminals, with inlaid lapis lazuli to replicate the markings of the falcon, including the eyes and mouth (fig. 7). The collar itself is made of 103 pieces of gold in the shape of an ankh (life), djed (stability), and was (dominion).

Fig. 7: Collar of Khnumet

Perhaps, the most exquisite jewellery are the two golden crowns, one is a circlet that has nearly 200 small flowers with a carnelian centre and five turquoise-inlaid petals, each connected by gold wires to smaller gold flowers (fig. 8). On each side are five clusters of lotus blossoms, the hieroglyphic sign for life. The other crown is of heavier gold and inlaid with the same gemstones. In the middle between rosettes and flowering plants stretches a vulture made of gold leaf with black obsidian eyes. Vultures are an insignia of a queen, but there is no evidence that Khnumet ever reached this rank.

Fig. 8: Floral crown of Khnumet

Among all the treasures of the Middle Kingdom, wooden tomb models must be many people’s favourite. The difference in craftsmanship might seem obvious but even the simplest of these models demands a high degree of workmanship. Choosing a favourite is difficult as they all have a charm, but I have decided on the Meketre models found in his tomb on the West Bank of Luxor (TT 280), high up in the cliffs. He was chief steward under Mentuhotep II and served until the early years of the Twelfth Dynasty. These remarkably well-preserved models with their quality of carving and painting, their colours, the linen garments on some of the figures, the design of boats with their original rigging, all help us to take a glimpse into everyday life in the Middle Kingdom. The raising and slaughtering of livestock, making bread and beer, storing grain, noble houses, cattle census, and even scribes recording their inventory, providing everything for the afterlife, which also tells us about the Egyptian belief that these models could help magically supply eternal sustenance (fig. 9). Unfortunately, there is no Egyptian word that defines these types of burial goods.

Fig. 9: Model boat of Meketre

The story of the find is almost as fascinating as the models themselves. All accessible rooms of the tomb had been robbed in antiquity, but in 1920 Herbert Winlock wanted to obtain an accurate floor plan for his map on the Eleventh Dynasty necropolis at Thebes, so he set the workmen to clean out the debris. It was during this cleaning operation that the small hidden chamber was discovered. There were twenty-four almost perfectly preserved models found there (fig. 10). They would be eventually divided between The Egyptian Museum in Cairo and The Metropolitan Museum in New York. I have been very fortunate to visit both museums, in the Met, gallery 105, and the Cairo Museum, room 27 on the upper floor. In Cairo, I have gazed at these objects marvelling at the detail. The fishermen dragging their nets with fish already in them, while the rowers are at each corner, Meketre under his shelter, while a man at the front is using his plumbline to test the depth of the water and the man at the stern is guiding the boat. Now I need to revisit them, as Sam Powell, who is researching tomb models for her PhD has given us far more insight into these models.

Fig. 10: Offering bearer of Meketre

Thank you, Sam and Ken, for making the Middle Kingdom come alive in such an informative way. I can’t wait for the next Zoom course at the Swansea Egypt Centre!

Friday, 15 July 2022

A Day in the Life of Meketre

This blog, which has been written by Marissa Lopez, is a look at a hypothetical typical day in the life of Meketre, as depicted by his funerary models. Marissa is a life-long student of ancient Egyptian culture and likes to imagine what life could’ve been like back then.

Meketre woke up as the light filtered through the slit window towards the roof of his heneket (bedroom). His mind groggy, he could still picture his dream from the night before and felt it would be a good day. He sat up and looked around the room for the inetesh, dangerous animals that sometimes creep in at night. He can’t see anything against the white plaster walls or crawling on the linen blanket covering his legs. His servants are already busy, he can hear them moving around his estate as they clean and prepare food for him and his family. Meketre checks his sandals, slips them on, and starts his morning routine. 

Grabbing a cup of thick beer, he steps outside and breathes in deeply. He can smell the many trees and plants surrounding the lake behind his home. He sees a family of ducks swimming in the distance while a cat is curled up under a tree, sleeping. It was areqy, the last day of the month and when he walked around his personal estate to review the figures (fig. 1).


Fig. 1: Garden and porch model (MMA 20.3.13)

He took a moment to reflect on his journey so far. His father was a local leader and this allowed Meketre an education so he could learn to read and write. He started as an apprentice and worked his way up to a sealer under Nebhepetre Montuhotep. His good work caught the eye of Khenty, the overseer of the treasury. Khenty took Meketre under his direct supervision and arranged for Meketre to get the position after Khenty joined the town elders.

Meketre finished his beer and handed the cup to a passing servant. Today he had to travel the estate and meet with the overseer of craftsmen in some shops. Normally, he would stay in his office as the local supervisors reported to him, but a good leader looks with his own eyes. He decided to stop at the granary first, the main form of wealth for his king. Silver was pretty, but it didn’t feed the people (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Granary (MMA 20.3.13)


Meketre turned to the right and started to walk down the path towards the granary. As he approached the granary, he could see Antef standing outside talking to one of the scribes. He was pleased to see Antef stand up straighter as he noticed Meketre’s approach. The other scribe hurried inside. “I was expecting you, sir.” Antef said, bowing slightly. Meketre nodded and walked into the building.

The granary consisted of two areas, the first one a long hall in which all of the scribes sat against the wall and wrote down the information they were given. At the end of the hall on the left-hand side was a door that led into the large storage room. The room had six sections separated by half walls with walking planks across the tops. New bags of grain were dumped on the top of the pile in four sections and withdrawn from the bottom of one wall. This allowed the grain to be circulated, preventing rot and age from ruining the grain. The building corners themselves were taller than the walls to support the thatched roof. Reed mats were rolled up to allow sunlight in, but were closed at night to prevent animals from stealing the grain.

Meketre walked into a long hall and gestured to the first scribe sitting cross-legged against the wall. The scribe obediently handed Meketre the papyrus roll from his kilt. The papyrus had multiple columns and rows showing the weight of each bag of grain that had been added to the granary, the amount that had been removed and for what purpose. His eyes scanned the numbers and totals. Everything looked appropriate. He handed the papyrus back to the scribe and walked along the wall looking at the papyrus of each scribe and ensuring everything looked correct. Antef walked behind him, volunteering additional information and answering questions as they arose. During Meketre’s inspection, the normal hustle and bustle of people carrying bags of grain, weighing them, and moving them to the storeroom had stopped. They waited patiently for the inspection to be completed, standing off to the side drinking water and chatting about their lives and the news of the day. They were sure to speak in hushed tones so as not to disturb Meketre.

Fig. 3: Preparing and baking bread (MMA 20.3.13)


After the inspection of the granary, Meketre started towards the bakery and brewery (fig. 3). He needed to monitor the amount of grain that was being taken in and ensure it produced the exact number of bread loaves and jars of beer for its weight. Scribes sat outside, leaning against the wall while staying in the shade of the palm leaves overhanging the edge. Like he did at the granary, Meketre examined the papyrus of each scribe to ensure there were no mistakes and that all of the information was being calculated correctly. Inside he could hear the bakers and brewers working on grinding the grain, baking bread, and making beer (fig. 4). He could smell the yeast that both groups used from outside. It was strong and the reason scribes sat outside in the shade of the building. Once again, everything looked in order and Meketre began his walk to the cattle viewing stand.

Fig. 4: Bakery and brewery (MMA 20.3.12)

Meketre walked past the mekher (barn) as the sun reached its highest point in the sky (fig. 5). He could hear the young renen (bulls), eating inside to protect them from the heat of the day.

Fig. 5: Bulls in barn (MMA 20.3.9)


Meketre arrived at the cattle fields. A raised and covered platform stood by the administration building and a group of men were herding the cattle from the field towards the platform (fig. 6). Others were standing on the platform while scribes were off to the side until they were needed. Meketre climbed onto the platform and was greeted by the men already there. They discussed the cattle, grain usage, fencing upkeep, butchery schedule, diseases, injuries, deaths, and birth rates since his last review. While they spoke, cups of beer and plates of dried meat and fish was served as a midday meal.

Fig. 6: Cattle viewing stand. Global Egyptian Museum (Cairo JE 46724)


After the meal and conversation with the men at the cattle stand, Meketre made his way to the slaughterhouse (fig. 7). It was not a long walk. The sharp smell of blood and feces was strong. This informed him that they must be in the process of butchering an animal at this moment. He stepped inside and he could see blood being drained from a cow that was hanging upside down. A pot was underneath the cow, collecting the blood. Birds were hanging from lines strung across the room. He spoke to the supervisor and pointed out which bird he wanted sent to his residence for the evening meal. The king allowed him such luxuries because Meketre did good work for the king.

Fig. 7: Slaughterhouse (MMA 20.3.10)


Meketre left the slaughterhouse and walked to the river. This was his favorite time of day, watching the ships come in to dock (figs. 8–9). He loved the idea of being on a boat but the reality was less kind. He always got sick when he traveled by boat. Working on a boat was difficult and being an overseer was better, to be sure. He still liked to look at them though and imagine that when he travels by boat to the place in the West, he will no longer succumb to that sickness.

Fig. 8: Boat (MMA 20.3.1)

Fig. 9: Boat (MMA 20.3.6)


Thinking about his trip through the Netherworld, he decided to stop at one more place before going back to his home. The carpenter shop was a little farther than he planned to walk, but he had something on his mind that could not wait (fig. 10).

Fig. 10: Carpenter's shop (Cairo JE 46722)


Meketre arrived at the carpenter’s shop as the sun started to dip in the sky. The head carpenter, Kyky, greeted him at the doorway a little concerned. Meketre smiled at him and the carpenter relaxed. “I’ve come to see how my statues are coming along”, Meketre said. “I had a dream last night and it showed to me images I cannot erase. It was of my wife, Nefert, and she was carrying my offerings into my tomb. I also saw my children carrying offerings into my tomb. I want you to carve and paint two women to look like Nefert. She is my beloved, my Ist, and she will make sure my tomb is properly cared for. Then I want you to make a set of four, my two sons and two daughters, also providing for my resting place.”

Fig. 11: Funerary procession (MMA 20.3.8)

Kyky smiled confidently. “I can do that. She will be so beautiful, you will cry from the beauty (figs. 11–13). Your children will give you the best beer, bread, and meats to sustain you for eternity.” Meketre smiled. He knew that he would be well cared for when he became a Westerner. He walked back to his home, satisfied with a productive day and he wondered briefly, how long would his legacy last.

For all eternity, he decided. And it was a good day.

Fig. 12: Woman holding offerings (Cairo JE 46725)  

Fig. 13: Woman holding offerings (MMA 20.3.7)


Grajetzki, Wolfram 2009. Court officials of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. Duckworth Egyptology. London: Duckworth.

Grajetzki, Wolfram 2006. The Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt: history, archaeology and society. Duckworth Egyptology. London: Duckworth.

Rice, Michael 1999. Who’s who in ancient Egypt. Who’s Who series. London; New York: Routledge.

Roehrig, Catharine H. 2002. Life along the Nile: three Egyptians of ancient Thebes. Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 60 (1), 1–56.

Winlock, H. E. 1955. Models of daily life in ancient Egypt, from the tomb of Meket-Rē' at Thebes. Publications of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition 18. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Monday, 4 July 2022

100 Years On: The Collection of the Reverend William MacGregor

The blog post for this week has been written by Tom Hardwick, an Egyptologist and curator. He has worked with Egyptian collections in the UK, USA, and Egypt. He is a specialist in pharaonic Egyptian sculpture and iconography, and has worked extensively on the history of collecting Egyptian objects.

The centenary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, coming up in November, overshadows a rather more niche anniversary occurring this week and last: the hundredth anniversary of the sale at the auctioneer’s Sotheby’s of the Egyptian collection of the Revd William MacGregor (1848–1937), Vicar of Tamworth 1878–1887 (fig. 1). The dispersal of MacGregor’s collection would turn out to be a boon for the Egypt Centre, as Ken’s tweetalong to the sale has been showing. It was also the unwanted end to almost a year of negotiations between the collection’s owners and some of the wealthiest men in the world.

Fig. 1: William MacGregor

MacGregor came from a monied background, so could afford to visit Egypt in 1885 to convalesce from an illness. Bitten by the Egyptological bug, MacGregor became a keen supporter of the young Egypt Exploration Fund, even helping the Fund’s senior excavator Edouard Naville in some of his excavations in the Delta.

MacGregor’s interest in ancient Egypt and its antiquities was not an abstract one. As did many other visitors to Egypt at the time, he formed a collection of Egyptian objects, taking advantage of a legal (or semi-legal) trade in antiquities in Egypt that would not be abolished until 1983. MacGregor’s collection grew steadily, fuelled by suppliers like Henry Wallis. A successful member of the Pre-Raphaelite painter in the 1850s and 1860s, renowned for his Death of Chatterton, by the 1880s Wallis was a seasoned traveller in the Mediterranean and Levant, where he would paint watercolour scenes full of local colour to sell back in London. He also collected and studied ceramics on his travels, writing a number of studies that gave prominence to objects he owned or had just sold. Wallis was what one would now call an art influencer, making his way by buying, publishing, promoting, and selling on collections. From the mid-1880s Wallis had started to lend Egyptian “ceramics”—most not pottery, but what Egyptologists call faience—to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). In 1895 he ended the loan to lend many of them to an exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Cluba private club for collectors and “connoisseurs” of art. While we now take touring exhibitions of Egyptian objects for granted—Tutankhamun, Ramesses, Cleopatra all in recent years—the 1895 exhibition was the first temporary exhibition to bring together and display Egyptian objects as artworks. Wallis and MacGregor did not just lend objects from their collections, but served on the organizing committee alongside his fellow collector Frederick Hilton Price and Egyptologists like Adolf Erman, Flinders Petrie, and Gaston Maspero.

Fig. 2: Egypt Centre W424, as illustrated by Wallis, and now (the stand is a modern addition)

The exhibition was well-received, and MacGregor celebrated the vindication of his taste shortly afterwards by buying many of the objects Wallis had put on loan (fig. 2). Wallis fulfilled his part of the bargain by publishing a history of Egyptian “ceramic art” centred on MacGregor’s collection (fig. 3), which he claimed was of a quality that “permit[s] the opportunity of taking a comprehensive survey of the progress of the art of the Egyptian potter from an early period up to that of its latest development, such as is scarcely to be found elsewhere.” Wallis continued to collect and write on Egyptian art, and produced a second illustrated study of “ceramics” in 1900. Wallis later sold some objects in this to MacGregor, too.

Fig. 3: “Henry Wallis’s Egyptian Ceramic Art (1898)

Another of MacGregor’s suppliers was Count d’Hulst, whom MacGregor had excavated alongside in Egypt. Around 1896, d’Hulst sold MacGregor a small but exquisite obsidian head of a king for the then sizeable sum of £100; this would soon become widely regarded as the gem of his collection (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Obsidian head of a king, acquired by MacGregor in 1896

MacGregor also acquired objects as a quid pro quo for funding excavations, in particular those of John Garstang in Egypt and Sudan, to which he provided significant support. His collection, therefore, contained excavated archaeological material alongside purchased material with no documented findspot. By 1921 he owned thousands of objects, displayed in the “museum” at his house Bolehall Manor. While Wallis’s publication and the Burlington exhibition focused on individual, beautiful objects, it’s clear that MacGregor’s collection was not—could not be—limited to this, and contained what he and his contemporaries would have called many “series” of object “classes.” These could be different objects made from the same material, different materials used to make the same type of object, the same type of object from different sites, or numerous representations of the same deity or amulet. Even if they weren’t easy on the eye, many of MacGregor’s objects would have had a meaning and importance to him, and its own place in his museum.

In addition to Wallis’s published catalogues, MacGregor himself organized his collections. Contemporary letters reveal that he compiled a card catalogue and several volumes of photographs, now lost—and one of the great what-ifs of the history of Egyptology. Some sense of the scope of his cataloguing can still be encountered on objects he owned: many of these still preserve numbers on them which presumably derive from his inventory of his collections. These are either written directly on the object in his distinctive vertical hand, or printed in red ink on plain paper labels (figs. 5–6).

Fig. 5: Egypt Centre W399 with the handwritten MacGregor number 3940

Fig. 6: Egypt Centre W932 with MacGregor's printed collection number 1723

Twenty-five years after the Burlington Fine Arts Club’s Exhibition of the Art of Ancient Egypt, the Club decided to put on another exhibition of Egyptian objects (Pierson 2019). MacGregor again lent objects and served on the committee of the Exhibition of Ancient Egyptian Art, which ran from May to July 1921. He was the only survivor of the 1895 exhibition committee (although Petrie’s collection at University College London also lent objects), which now contained a new generation of collectors and Egyptologists such as Lord Carnarvon, Howard Carter, Percy Newberry, and Richard Bethell. MacGregor’s objects were central to the success of the exhibition, none more so than his obsidian head, then identified as the Middle Kingdom pharaoh Amenemhat III and now as his father Senwosret III. Reviewers acclaimed this as “one of the supreme masterpieces of the exhibition” and “almost the finest piece in all Egyptian art.”


For MacGregor, all publicity was good publicity: he had decided to sell his collection during the run of the exhibition, and praise like this would help him get a good price. If he decided to sell in summer 1921, though, why did it take a year for the collection to come up for sale? The answer is that MacGregor didn’t consign it to auction: he sold it to the art dealer Spink and Son in 1921, and Spink then took the better part of a year to shift it. Founded in 1666 as a goldsmith’s, by the start of the twentieth century Spink and Son had a royal warrant to strike medals, a shopfront on Piccadilly Circus—the heart of empire—and dealt in numismatics, pictures, Oriental (i.e. Chinese and Indian) art, and antiquities (fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Letterhead of Spink and Son, 1922

Spink’s monthly publication the Numismatic Circular offered descriptive listings of coins and medals for sale alongside notes and news from the numismatic world, and their specialist, Alfred E. Knight, had compiled several selling catalogues of antiquities along similar lines, in addition to Amentet, a guide to Egyptian amulets explicitly written for collectors, coincidentally jammed with puffs for Spink’s own stock. Spink felt they had the experience and client list to turn a profit on MacGregor’s collection, so took out an option on it for £20,000, to be paid by the end of 1921. 

Spink then tried to achieve any dealer’s ultimate goal: to sell something before you have paid for it. Archives spread around the world—Spink’s own archives, sadly, were lost in the Blitz—give some sense of what happened next. Lord Carnarvon, whose own collection had also been admired at the Burlington exhibition, was approached about it. He and his adviser, Howard Carter, seem to have contemplated buying it, or selling it on to another collector, in conjunction with Carnarvon’s friend Richard Bethell. At the same time, Spink had put Percy Newberry, former Professor of Egyptology at Liverpool University, on commission to sell the collection (one wonders which Professors of Egyptology would do the same today?). Carter and Newberry fell out over the resulting mess, while Newberry made a fruitless trip to Chicago to attempt to sell the collection to James Henry Breasted’s Oriental Institute, then flush with money from oil magnate John D. Rockefeller.

But how much was the collection worth? Spink was put in the difficult position of trying to value something that was both unique (the obsidian head) and commonplace (the vast quantity of amulets, pottery vessels etc). After World War I the art market boomed, with American buyers snapping up European treasures through the intermediary of dealers such as Sir Joseph Duveen. The Duke of Westminster had just sold Gainsborough’s Blue Boy for an astonishing £125,000—what was the right price for the obsidian head, something much older and rarer, but much less securely identifiable as “art”? Spink alerted dealers, “runners” like Carter and Newberry, and offered the collection directly to wealthy collectors like American industrialist Theodore Pitcairn and William Randolph Hearst, the American media mogul (and model for Citizen Kane). Early offers of the collection priced it at £65,000, with the head said to be worth £30,000 on its own. These were doubtless only intended to be starting points for negotiation, and later offers fell to £45,000 for the whole collection or £20,000 for the head, and finally £35,000 for the whole collection. No one wanted it.

Spink paid MacGregor at the end of 1921 and shipped his collection to their London galleries, where Alfred E. Knight, with some assistance from Percy Newberry, began to catalogue it. With no takers for the collection en bloc, Spink decided to sell it at auction. The auctioneers Sotheby Wilkinson and Hodge were the obvious choice for the sale. Although they were further away from Spink’s offices than their rivals Christie’s, Sotheby’s had handled many of the previous major Egyptian sales, such as those of F. G. Hilton Price in 1911 (where MacGregor himself had purchased a number of objects) and Lord Amherst during the Burlington exhibition the previous summer. The MacGregor collection was larger than either, and was organized into 1800 lots, containing over 9,000 objects, sold over nine days (fig. 8).

Fig. 8: Title page and frontispiece of the MacGregor sale catalogue

I’ve written popular and academic articles on the MacGregor sale elsewhere (Hardwick 2011; 2012). What is noticeable is that while the sale’s total of £34,092 came close to the £35,000 Spink wanted for the whole collection, much of this was achieved by Spink’s own agents bidding on their own objects to drive the price up. In many cases the other bidders lost interest and Spink was left with its own objects, “bought in” as the term has it. Spink was the second-largest spender at the sale—spending almost £4,000—and the largest purchaser by number of lots (nearly 25%). While Spink’s unexpected purchases were not the end of the world—they would give it an impressive stockroom for future sales—once these were taken into account, along with the auctioneer’s commission, the price of the catalogues, the fees to Newberry and others, Spink’s profit on the £20,000 it paid MacGregor was much less impressive than they had hoped for. Even though the £10,000 fetched by the obsidian head, which was sold to the oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian through an elaborate series of false names and handkerchief signals, was the largest price fetched by an Egyptian object, it was far from the £30,000 it was initially proposed at—and a twelfth of the astronomical price of the Blue Boy. Egyptian objects were not valued on the same terms as Western works of art.

Every cloud had a silver lining, though: for Sir Henry Wellcome, the fact that the MacGregor collection was set to be dispersed at auction gave him the opportunity to bid on objects for the Historical Medical Museum he had already been building for nearly twenty years. Wellcome was notoriously keen on a bargain, and buying at auction removed a dealer’s markup. Wellcome and his numerous agents were the most prolific (genuine) purchasers of objects at the sale, buying over 20% of the lots containing 25% of the objects … for under 5% of the price! Other MacGregor objects would make their way into Wellcome’s collections until Wellcome’s death in 1936 brought his collecting to a close. Wellcome’s purchases from the MacGregor collection, at the cheaper end of the spectrum, did not include many masterpieces, but reflect the range of MacGregor’s tastes. Ken’s live-tweeting of the sale, seen through the lens of the Egypt Centre’s holdings, gives some sense of what must have been an action-packed two weeks!



Burlington Fine Arts Club 1921. Catalogue of an exhibition of ancient Egyptian art. London: Burlington Fine Arts Club.

Burlington Fine Arts Club 1895. Exhibition of the art of ancient Egypt. London: Burlington Fine Arts Club.

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