Chapter 20: The Los Angeles Episode
For years before the publication of "Je Cherche un Homme...", William and Edgard had corresponded and met with Mr. Rexford Stead, Deputy Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. On various occasions Stead had seen many of the sculptures in the bank and in the museum. He was aware of the overwhelming scientific opinion in favor of the authenticity of the Collection, and even though not an Egyptologist himself, had always regarded the Collection as extremely interesting and most beautiful within the range of the Amarna style and authenticity. Once, he even brought Mrs. Anna Bing, an influential patron of the museum, to show her some of the sculptures in the bank. Mrs. Bing and he, had been particularly attracted to the nearly life-size bust of Akhenaten, the largest and most striking sculpture of the Collection.After having discussed Egyptian art with him on many occasions, the Mansoors were firmly convinced that Stead had a keener eye for it.
On December 21, 1967, Mr. Stead wrote to Edgard: "I have gone through the considerable reports you have assembled on certain Egyptian sculptures in your possession, and quite understand the dilemma that has confronted you for many years. Certainly, the strong letter from Dr. Harold Plenderleith is very strongly in your favor and I am impressed with his courage. I think you may remember that my principal interest was in the large Akhenaton head...."
But Stead was also aware of the negative opinion of Cooney and Bothmer and did not hesitate to tell the Mansoors that this bothered him and that it stood in the way of the Collection. On March 23, 1971, Stead wrote to Edgard, saying: "I quite recognize that you are impatient to resolve the sale of your interesting objects, but the real difficulty is that the comments by the Boston conservator and others have sufficiently clouded your objects to the extent that, unless they could be authenticated with very real evidence, most museums would be reluctant to find funds for their purchase." Under the circumstances, and with superiors whose word had to be obeyed, Stead was helpless and could not convince any group of trustees to study this matter properly.
In "Je Cherche un Homme....", the Mansoors wrote: "This statement sums up more or less the attitude of many directors and curators of American museums toward the collection. What exactly is the 'very real evidence' and who can provide it if it is not the qualified scientists? What more can humanly be done to obtain this 'very real evidence' when the eminent scientist of the Smithsonian Institution said after reading the many technical reports: '...just about the last word has been said on the subject anyway'; and when Dr. Harold J. Plenderleith, Director of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and the Restoration of Cultural property, Rome, said in the closing paragraph of his statement: '...for as I have analyzed the evidence before me, the inescapable conclusion is that there is overriding agreement as to their genuineness'; and when Dr. C. Osborne Hutton of Stanford University, after having reviewed the scientific reports on the collection, declared: 'All of the reports, except that due to Mr. W. J. Young, present evidence along many lines that lead to only one conclusion, namely, that the objects studied are genuine antiquities.'"
Another important factor that forced the trustees to view Egyptian art with reluctance was that two or three decades earlier, the museum had purchased one Amarna sculpture which was said to be a forgery or at least very suspicious. It is not my place to comment on this object.
Some of the Mansoors kept seeing Stead in relation to other Egyptian material, but always, somehow, the Amarna Collection infiltrated their conversation and Stead never discouraged it.
Some months after the publication of "Je Cherche un Homme...", William requested a meeting with Mr. Kenneth Donahue, Director of the Museum; Dr. Ben Johnson, Director of the Museum's Laboratory; Mr. Stead and two of the Mansoor brothers. A few days later, Stead wrote to inform William that Donahue had accepted and they would see the brothers on a certain date.
Edgard and William went to the museum as agreed. Donahue was very pleasant and so was Dr. Johnson. Stead always had been. For two hours, Donahue and Johnson (Stead knew the entire story) listened patiently and with deep interest to the facts relating to the Collection of Tell-el-Amarna.
Finally, William came to the suggestion he had in mind, which he had previously discussed with Stead. In view of the importance of the Collection, historic as well as stylistic, and in view of the irrefutable scientific opinion authenticating it, what could the Los Angeles County Museum of Art lose by allowing the Mansoors to bring all the sculptures of Amarna to the museum to be examined in its own laboratory? Donahue and Johnson gladly accepted. They said it was the right thing to do. They had their own capable laboratory and they could certainly discuss any scientific point with the many scientists of the California Institutions that had already studied the sculptures. Perhaps some results could now be obtained. They shook hands and left.
It had been agreed that the sculptures should be in the museum in two weeks' time and that they would remain there until the completion of Johnson's examination. Quickly, the brothers moved all the pieces that were in the San Francisco and Santa Rosa banks to Los Angeles.
William called Stead to inform him that the entire Collection was in Los Angeles and that the Mansoors would bring it to the museum the following day as agreed upon. But Stead could hardly talk. In a shaky and embarrassed voice, he told William that the museum's plans had changed, that the laboratory's schedule was quite heavy, and that such an examination was not possible at this time. He added that he was personally very sorry about this regrettable mishap. There was nothing William could say. He immediately knew that there had been some foul play. William thanked him and ended the conversation.
What had happened so suddenly? The Mansoors could not believe what Stead had just told William. According to William, Stead seemed very uneasy and the tone of his voice had betrayed his unhappiness.
Could it be that the long arm of the dissident group had again reached them from afar? Twenty years earlier, the Mansoors had left New York to avoid that group. Were they still pursuing them?
It did not take long to find out what had happened. There had been a meeting of research scientists at the laboratory of the Los Angeles County Museum and William J. Young of Boston was attending it. Johnson had worked with Young. Dr. Fred Stross, a chemist and research anthropologist representing the University of California at Berkeley, was also there. Stross did not talk to Young, but he did talk with Johnson. Stross knew that Johnson had already briefly examined some of the sculptures, and the Mansoors had told him that he was due to examine the entire Collection. Innocently, Stross asked Johnson what he thought of the sculptures after his preliminary examination. Unaware that Stross was the Mansoor's close friend, that he had worked for this Collection for some twenty-five years and that he had purchased three of the sculptures himself, Johnson immediately answered that he could voice no opinion on them, and that the museum was rejecting the Mansoors' proposal because Young had informed him that the Mansoors were troublesome people and that they were only interested in a lawsuit.
So that was what had happened between the time of the Mansoors' meeting with Donahue, Johnson and Stead, and the conversation two weeks later. Whether or not the trustees knew of this, is not known to the Mansoors.
One would think that at least one person from any museum would reject all biased opinions and order a proper investigation of the Collection, despite who said what for the benefit of the museum and the art lovers. But, it was probably thought, why should one interfere? It is hard to conceive that no voice was heard to at least preach curiosity. Such are the unfortunate facts with museums. Such are the evils of controversial problems.
Copyright © 1995 Christine Mansoor
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