‘Treasure of Harageh’ to go under the hammer in London

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Ancient Egyptian artefacts dating from the reign of Sesostris II (1897-1878 BC) have been placed for sale with Bonhams private auction house in London by the American Institute for Archaeology, St Louis Society Inc.

The items were excavated in 1913-14 by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt from Tomb 124 at Harageh, Fayoum. They were then acquired by the AIA St. Louise Society Inc. in 1914 in return for their contributions in funding the excavation.

The St Louis Society Inc. was founded in 1906 and is part of the American Institute of Archaeology. Members have received the ‘Gold Medal’ for their distinguished archaeological achievement by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).

The AIA have released the following statement on their website: The AIA has learned with the deepest concern that the AIA St. Louis Society proposes to auction certain antiquities in its possession. The St. Louis Society has a long history within the AIA, but, at the same time, is a registered non-profit independent of the national AIA.

The national office of the AIA was not consulted prior to this decision and only became aware of the pending auction when an AIA member reported that the antiquities were being offered on an auction house website. We are urgently investigating this matter and are working to find a solution that conforms to our firmly expressed ethical position concerning the curation of ancient artefacts for the public good.”

Jasmine Day, an Egyptologist told Heritage Daily, “The sale of Egyptian antiquities by organisations or institutions is a poor way to raise funds because it gives an impression that these items, however valuable at auction, are superfluous, unworthy of the institutions selling them – when in fact they are often pieces that many museums with smaller collections would like to have. Those museums are in no position to buy them, so they disappear into the private art market. The disrespect shown by some organisations to those who generously donated or diligently excavated the objects they would now sell is reprehensible.”

Egypt’s heritage under the hammer is nothing new. On Saturday a 2,300 year old coffin lid sold for £12,000 (LE140,000).  Then in early July Northampton Council in England faced extensive criticism for auctioning the statue of Sekhemka for nearly £16 million (LE185 million) in order to raise funds for the town’s museum. This led to Northampton Museum losing its Art Council accreditation.

The ‘Treasure of Harageh’ is an extraordinary collection of silver jewellery and alabaster vessels excavated at Harageh in Egypt by a team working under the direction of the legendary William Matthew Flinders Petrie, universally regarded as the father of modern archaeology.

William Matthew Flinders Petrie, regarded as the founder of modern archaeology

The team was led by Reginald Engelbach whose career in Egyptology, included a term as Chief Keeper of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. In October 1913 Engelbach’s team began excavations at the site of Harageh, located near the entrance to Fayoum, 62 miles south west of Cairo.

This site contained an extensive necropolis which the excavators divided into thirteen zones, one of which contained Tomb 124, in which the Treasure was found.

The tomb is thought to have belonged to an elite woman of elevated status, identified as Iytenhab from a funerary stela.

There are seven silver cowrie shells with double horizontal piercings, probably to be strung into a necklace, six of which have tiny beads inside which rattle with movement.

Alongside there are fourteen silver-mounted shell pendants of tear-drop form, the shells of mottled black and white, each mounted in silver frames with loops for suspension to be worn as a necklace. 

The most exceptional jewel is a three-dimensionally designed bee, which Engelbach himself singled out and termed a ‘centre-piece’.  Its inlays are remarkable in that they are used on both the left- and the right-hand sides of the bee and are even visible when the object is viewed from above.

The feet of the bee are likewise three-dimensionally designed but are attached to a base which must have served as a bridge by which this object was attached to another of which it formed a part.

The nature of that object is unknown, but it may have been designed as either a bracelet or headband for which this bee served as the principle element.

The most extraordinary of the five albaster objects is the cosmetic spoon, the handle of which is uniquely designed as an ankh-sign. 

The ‘Treasure of Harageh’ is remarkable for what appears to be the earliest proof of actual shells in the design of Egyptian jewellery and for the unique alabaster cosmetic spoon, the ankh-design of the handle of which is without parallel for the period.

Bonhams is advertising the auction for Thursday 2 October and it is expected to raise at least £80,000-120,000 (LE930,000-1,400,000) but of course these priceless objects will sell for much higher amounts.

Once again, unique and precious artefacts that should be on display in their country of origin, Egypt, are being sold off at auction and could end up in private ownership, never to be seen in public again.

The Egyptian museum has a magnificent Ancient Egyptian Jewellery room where these exquisite pieces should be exhibited for the whole world to see and admire.

Egyptian museum in Cairo

Photographs: Bonhams