Chapter 2: Acquisition of a Collection of Amarna Sculpture Masterpieces

In the early 1920's, M. A. Mansoor received a visit from Tawadros Guirguis Ghoubrial, a fellow antiquarian from Upper Egypt. Mansoor had known Ghoubrial for several years already, and knew that he was the supplier of antiquities to a competitor in Cairo, Mr. Maurice Naham. Mansoor was somewhat surprised because he had never seen Ghoubrial in any of his shops. On rare occasions, in earlier years, he had purchased some antiquities from him in Qena. There had never been any ill-feelings between them; Ghoubrial had known Nahman for many years and had remained loyal to him as was the custom between dealers in Egypt in those days.

After the usual greetings, Ghoubrial said: "Mr. Mansoor, I have really come to see you about an important business matter and I just don't know where to start. I know you are a reasonable man and I have heard nothing but the best about you. This is the reason why I am here." To make him feel at ease, Mansoor replied, "Suppose you tell me your story and if there is anything I can do to help, I assure you, I will be happy to do it." Ghoubrial spoke again, "I arrived in Cairo two days ago and almost immediately went to see Mr. Nahman. I am sure you know that I have been selling him antiquities for many years. This trip I brought nothing with me but two sculptures which, I believe, are quite extraordinary and very beautiful. I showed them to Mr. Nahman and after he looked at them for some time, he asked for their price. When I mentioned the amount, he pushed them toward me angrily saying that they were not genuine and that he was not interested in them. When I protested and asked him to please re-examine them, he stood up, threw his arms in the air and said that I was a fool, that if these pieces were truly genuine they would be worth ten times the price I was offering them for. I tried to insist that the two sculptures were absolutely genuine, that I would guarantee them, but he became really angry, and there was nothing I could do under the circumstances but leave before matters turned to the worst. I don't agree with Nahman. I am here to ask if you would be interested in looking at them." Mansoor answered, "Of course I would. Do not worry about what Nahman said. Everyone has his opinion, and whatever reason Nahman has for not believing them to be genuine, is his own.. I will tell you what I think after I have looked at them. When can you bring them in?" "My hotel is just down the street." "So be it."

Ghoubrial returned within half an hour and placed a package on Mansoor's desk. He opened it gently, unwrapped one of the sculptures and carefully placed it in Mansoor's hands. From the very moment Mansoor touched it, his trained, sensitive eye told him that he was contemplating something exquisitely beautiful and very precious. It was a small head of a Tell-el-Amarna princess, a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, in a creamy white limestone, just as he had examined thousands of sculptures before. He saw a faint glossy patine, many streaks of dendrites embedded in the limestone, and sub-parallel lines of polishing, a surface that could have been achieved only after the long eroding action of time.

Mansoor knew the head was ancient. It was one of the finest masterpieces of Egyptian art he had ever seen. He knew he would buy it no matter what the cost, and knew that he would take it home with him that evening. Finally, he said to Ghoubrial, "You are right my friend. It is a very beautiful sculpture and it is ancient." Ghoubrial unwraped the second piece. Mansoor extended a hand and received it. The first glance indicated that he was in the presence of a portrait of Akhenaten, the first monotheist, a revolutionary, a noble idealist.

Now Mansoor had both heads, one in each hand. (He seemed to have stepped out of this world. His gaze, going from one sculpture to the other, was one of absolute satisfaction. He thought of Akhenaten's great rebellion, his philosophy, his creed, his government and his art. He wondered about the remarkably talented artist who had created such magnificent sculptures.) He asked for a price. Ghoubrial gave a reasonable figure for each, and Mansoor acquired both pieces at once.

Alone at his desk, Mansoor contemplated his good fortune of purchasing the two most striking works of art he had ever owned. He did not ask Ghoubrial about the provenance of the sculptures, which seemed unimportant at the time. He thought he would do so at a later date, though he was aware that dealers rarely divulged their secrets, particularly in the case of important objects, and seldom told the truth if indeed they knew it themselves. No plans were made to show the pieces to anyone as yet. The two sculptures of Amarna went home with him that evening.

Toward the end of May of that year, Mansoor received a letter from Tawadros Guirguis Ghoubrial, informaing him that he would arrive in Cairo in just a few days. This letter mentioned that Ghoubrial was bringing "important antiquities" for Mansoor to look at, and that he would come to see him before going to any other dealers in Cairo. Unlike many of the poor and ignorant dealers of antiquities whom Mansoor knew in Upper and Lower Egypt, who never wrote to announce their arrival, Ghoubrial was a well-educated, principled gentleman, a knowledgeable antiquarian with many years of experience. Mansoor was naturally pleased at the news, but could not hope that Ghoubrial would show him anything as beautiful and important as the two Amarna sculptures.

Soon Ghoubrial arrived. Mansoor received him at home this time, so there would be no disturbance or interruption. Mansoor noticed a sparkle in Ghoubrial's eyes while he opened his suitcase and unwrapped his "pièce de résistance." He handed Mansoor a sculpture of incredible beauty, a head of Nefertiti, Akhenaten's queen, the "mistress of his heart." Mansoor was ready to discuss business, but Ghoubrial opened his suitcase again and produced a bas-relief portraying Akhenaten in white limestone. Mansoor could not believe his eyes. Where and how did Ghoubrial obtain four Amarna sculptures of this magnificence? Whatever the answer, it would make no difference. The sculptures were here. He owned two already and was certain to acquire these two. Then Ghoubrial unveiled yet one more, a head of a princess, another daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

While Mansoor was examining the sculptures, hardly any words had been exchanged. Hesitatingly, he hazarded a question, "Any more?" "This is all," said the antiquarian from Qena. Though the price seemed rather high, it was still reasonable enough for sculptures of this importance. Now Mansoor felt encouraged to ask about the provenance of the sculptures.

"In all truth," Ghoubrial replied, "I do not know exactly where or when they were found, and I doubt if I ever will. I only know the fellah (peasant) who brought them to me, and though I often pressed him to answer some questions, he never cared to do so. He is very secretive. He comes in, shows me what he has, I buy, I pay him, and he leaves immediately. If he comes back again, with or without objects of this quality, I have made up my mind to ask him more questions because I, too, am very curious. Undoubtedly, these sculptures come from Amarna, but where, how and when he obtained them is a complete mystery to me. If he ever talks, I'll tell you what he says. It is a promise."

This information was not very helpful, but Mansoor had to be satisfied with it, at least for the time being. He felt that what Ghoubrial had told him was the truth.

Ghoubrial's visit had been very friendly, and Mansoor encouraged him to return, assuring him that he would always be interested in objects of this quality. The five pieces were absolutely remarkable as a group. He had purchased individual Amarna objects before, but none were as fine and as masterfully stylized as these. They were undoubtedly the work of a highly inspired artist. He considered showing them to some of the Egyptologists he knew, but had another thought: Ghoubrial had brought him five sculptures in two trips; could there be more on the way? He opted for patience.

Between the early 1920's and 1941, Ghoubrial came to Cairo several times a year, always bringing with him, among other antiquities, one, two or three sculptures of the Amarna period- heads, statues, reliefs, all representing Akhenaten, Nefertiti, the royal princesses and Smenkhkara, Akhenaten's young son-in-law. In style, beauty, and perfection of execution, all showed the same characteristics as the first five pieces, yet they were all different from one another, as if representing different moods of the sitter. They were slightly different from the other known Amarna sculptures, and a few appeared to be lesser works of art, as if made by student artists working under the direction of the master sculptor.

During this time, Mansoor obtained a little more tangible information from Ghoubrial. The fellah had finally told him that he had found the sculptures himself years ago, buried in the sand, near Tell-el-Amarna, and that he had secretly moved them by night to a safer place, with the help of his sons. Later, he had brought them to Ghoubrial, one or a few at a time, whenever he needed money. After having known Ghoubrial for so many years, the fellah, it appears, trusted the Qena antiquarian with his secret. It is uncertain whether this story is true or not. In any case, I will discuss it later along with another version that was heard sometime thereafter.

Copyright © 1995 Christine Mansoor

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