I have just returned from a short break in Brussels, a city which is home to one of the most significant Continental collections from Egypt and Sudan – and one I’ve always wanted to visit. Housed in the Royal Museums of Art and History in Cinquantenaire Park, it contains about 11,000 objects – many on view in an impressively large display space. The strength of the collection owes much to the vision of curator Jean Capart (1877-1947), who both facilitated donations and purchases as well as encouraging archaeological fieldwork in Egypt by Belgian missions.
Highlights of the Brussels collection appear on the Global Egyptian Museum website, and give a flavour of the breadth of the holdings. There are plenty of parallels with material in Manchester. Some notable examples included a comparable collection of Predynastic slate palettes, Middle Kingdom wooden tomb models, and Roman plaster mummy masks. Other highlights for me were the extensive and still-brightly painted New Kingdom ‘Book of the Dead’ papyrus of Neferrenpet and a diverse collection of First Millennium BC private sculpture – a particular interest of mine. Needless to say, my “morning” museum outing became four hours spent in the Egyptian section!
By chance, I was in town at the same time as the Brussels Ancient Art Fair (BAAF), centred on a small number of venues in the Sablon area of the city. This provided an opportunity to view objects usually only seen in sale catalogues, on display within a conveniently close area. Tasteful shop-fronts and the clink of champagne glasses invited the attention of potential buyers. Small items predominated: shabtis, votive bronzes, and painted vignettes on cartonnage. Despite some eye-wateringly expensive prices, interest appeared to be keen.
To mark the 10th anniversary of BAAF, a special exhibition called ‘Ancient Egypt. Masterpieces from Collectors and Collections’ had been arranged. This showcased 120 small objects that are rarely seen because they are in private hands, supplemented by some museum objects held in Basel and Hannover.
Because there was no labelling of individual objects in the exhibition, the curious visitor was obliged to buy the sumptuous catalogue. This served as an important record, not just of the exhibition – but of the objects themselves. Most pieces had never been published, and as many of the objects were very small – literally gem-like – in size, they required specialist photography to appreciate properly.
A greater proportion of material than is often realised is held in private collections. Some collectors are very keen to share information on the objects they own, and some loan pieces to museums. However, many objects held in private hands are essentially invisible, because they their whereabouts is unknown to all but a very small group of Egyptologists.
One small vessel in particular struck me. It was made from slate and alabaster in the shape of a lotus flower. The exhibition catalogue stated that only one comparable piece is known, in Cairo, and dates it to the First Dynasty. In fact, we have an exact parallel in Manchester (Acc. no. 7053), excavated from Qau el-Kabir and most likely to date between the late Second to early Third Dynasty. I know of at least one other example at the Ashmolean in Oxford. Exhibitions like that at BAAF are important not only so the objects can be seen and appreciated by a wider audience. By comparison with objects with a known provenance, much more can be said about pieces in private hands – which, by their nature, often lack a sound archaeological context. More exhibitions and catalogues like that in Brussels will hopefully give greater insights into aspects of Egyptian material culture – held both in public and private collections.
Did anyone else catch the Brussels exhibition? I’d be keen to hear your thoughts!