As the importance of cultural patrimony increases, American museums will probably never again be able to acquire Greek, Roman, and Egyptian works at the rate and with the freedom they did in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when major collections, like those of the Metropolitan Museum, were assembled.
In different ways, two events in New York this month –– a sale on Thursday at Christie's, and an exhibition opening in two weeks at the Met –– offer reminders of that time, an exciting one for archaeologists, collectors, and curators, when some of the most important discoveries of Egyptian art were made. On Thursday, the Western Reserve Historical Society is selling a mummy and sarcophagus brought back from Egypt in 1900 by Liberty Holden, the publisher of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who made his fortune in silver mining. Two weeks from tomorrow, the Met will open an exhibition of photographs by the archaeological photographer Harry Burton, "Tutankhamun's Tomb: The Thrill of Discovery," documenting the excavation of the tomb between 1922 and 1933.
According to the head of Christie's antiquities department, G. Max Bernheimer, Holden was taking the "obligatory trip up the Nile" in the winter of 1900, when he learned that an Egyptian dealer had discovered a cache of four mummies and was offering them for sale. He bought this sarcophagus with its mummy, shipped it to Cairo for export clearance, and, on his return to Cleveland, donated it to the Historical Society, where the sarcophagus was publicly opened and the mummy partially unwrapped.
The Historical Society is selling the mummy, Mr. Bernheimer said, because it doesn't fit their mission, which is to collect objects related to Northeast Ohio. The last mummy in its sarcophagus to go to auction was sold at Christie's in London in 2003 for $1.4 million. Christie's has entered this mummy in the catalog as "estimate on request."
So, who is he? The mummy has been assigned different names over the years, but Christie's has identified him as a man named Neshkons, who was a Stolist, or priest responsible for anointing the cult statue of the god Amun in his temple, who lived and died during the Third Intermediate Period, sometime between 1040 and 900 B.C.E.
Mr. Bernheimer said he expects the mummy to be purchased by an institution. "For any institution in this country that doesn't have an Egyptian sarcophagus with its mummy, this is the one," he said. "It has great provenance; it's in great condition. And, obviously, these kinds of things are a great draw, especially for children." In his 15 years at Christie's, he said, he hasn't seen another mummy in its sarcophagus come to auction, except the one in 2003. "We're not likely to see them again," he said. "Certainly they're not coming out of Egypt anymore."
Around the time Holden returned home from Egypt, Lord Carnarvon, an English Earl with a taste for racehorses and cars, started wintering in Egypt for his health. He developed an interest in Egyptology and began sponsoring excavations. At the time, foreigners could get permits, called concessions, from the Egyptian government's Antiquities Department to excavate particular sites.
Lord Carnarvon teamed up with the archaeologist Howard Carter. Carter's dream was to find the tomb of Tutankhamun, a king who ruled briefly toward the end of the 18th Dynasty and about whom very little was known. In 1915, Carnarvon and Carter got a concession to excavate in the Valley of the Kings.
After seven years of moving dirt around with little to show for it, on November 4, 1922, Carter discovered a set of steps cut into the valley floor. His workmen eventually exposed a blocked doorway, stamped with the insignia of the royal necropolis. Carter immediately cabled Carnarvon in England, then waited for him to arrive. When he did, on November 24, Carter's workers removed the rubble from the doorway, revealing the seals of Tutankhamun.
For the next 11 years, Burton documented the excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb, as Carter and his team unveiled room after room filled with furniture and objects, and opened the shrine containing the sarcophagus and mummy of the king.
"The purpose of the exhibition is to give the viewer some impression of the wonder of Carter's discovery and of the complexity of the clearance of the tomb," the curator of the show and a senior research associate in the Met's Egyptian department, Susan Allen, said. Because the tomb was filled with objects, Carter had to work carefully to remove things without causing damage. A particularly interesting series of photographs shows Carter and his colleagues trying to remove the roof of the shrine, maneuvering in a very narrow space because the shrine took up most of the burial chamber.
After the discovery, the excavation site immediately became a media and tourist circus, which complicated the work. Distinguished visitors, including royalty, showed up and expected tours. Many publications were bitter that Carnarvon had given the London Times exclusive inside coverage of the excavation. When Carnarvon died suddenly in 1923, of blood poisoning, the press leaped on his death as evidence of a mummy's curse –– inspiring many later films, including the 1932 film "The Mummy," starring Boris Karloff.
Although the objects discovered in the tomb were magnificent, scholars were disappointed that no papyri were found, Ms. Allen's husband, James Allen, a curator emeritus at the Met and the Wilbour Professor of Egyptology at Brown University, who wrote the catalog introduction, said in an interview. The period around Tutankhamun's reign, known as the Amarna period, remains very mysterious. The pharaoh Akhenaten, whose reign preceded Tutankhamun's, tried unsuccessfully to establish monotheism in Egypt; both his reasons and the line of succession from Akhenaten to Tutankhamun are incompletely understood. One popular theory has held that Tutankhamun was Akhenaten's son; Mr. Allen suggests, in a recent article, that he was his nephew.
Some of the objects in Tutankhamun's tomb did offer clues to the question of succession: Some, for instance, had inscriptions that indicated they were originally made for a female pharaoh who ruled briefly after Akhenaten; later, her name was removed and replaced with Tutankhamun's.
Even without providing complete answers to these historical mysteries, the discovery of the tomb was still a major one, Ms. Allen said. "We had bits and pieces of similar things from other tombs, but nothing like this, showing the completeness of a royal burial, had ever been found before," she said. Burton's photographs vividly capture the delicate work of excavation –– and the thrill of a discovery that probably couldn't be made today, at least not in the same way.
"Books on Tutankhamun always focus on the beautiful objects," Ms. Allen said, whereas this exhibition "is more about the historical and the aesthetic documentation, and the process of experiencing something that no one had ever experienced. Even we as excavators now wouldn't be able to experience it, I don't think," she said. "The world of archeology and excavation has changed greatly."