Chapter 5: First Trip to the United States

In late 1946, M. A. Mansoor received a letter from Dr. Ambrose Lansing, Chief Curator of the Egyptian Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, asking for some photographs and suggesting that some of the Amarna sculptures be sent to the Metropolitan for consideration for purchase.

Permits from the Department of Antiquities at the Cairo Museum and American consular invoices had to be obtained in Egypt.

In March of 1947, William and Alphonse Mansoor left for the United States. The antiquities shipped with them consisted of hundreds of pieces of Egyptian art ranging from Pre-historic times to the early years of Christianity. The group included ten of the Amarna sculptures as well as many other outstanding works.

Their first visit in New York City was to Dr. Ambrose Lansing at the Metropolitan Museum. When they showed him the ten sculptures, Dr. Lansing seemed overwhelmed. Finally, Lansing said, "I have no reason to doubt their authenticity, but if I must buy them for the museum, I need to have a scientific report. I mean the stone, patination and other features must be tested in a laboratory." The Mansoors replied, "You can go ahead and test them here or anywhere you wish." Lansing answered, "Presently we have no laboratory for such a purpose in the museum, however, I hear that the Boston Museum has one which was started by a William J. Young, who apparently has been doing this sort of thing for some time. In fact, I know an art dealer in town whose name is Fahim Kouchakgi and who is friendly with Young. Perhaps it could speed up things if you showed him one or two of the pieces and allowed him to send them to Young for a scientific analysis." The Mansoors accepted Lansing's suggestion.

The next day William and Alphonse went to visit Kouchakgi in his gallery. He greeted them very warmly, informing them that he had heard about their Tell-el-Amarna sculptures and of the sales of some of the pieces to Farouk and other collectors. When they showed him two of the sculptures, he examined them very carefully and emphatically declared that he believed them to be genuine. He telephoned Lansing and agreed to send the two objects to Young in Boston.

Two weeks later, Mr. Young's reply came in a letter to Kouchakgi: "The larger of the two heads was examined from a minute fragment and appears not to be a natural material. It shows all the indications of being a made stone, which could be fabricated in a great many ways."

This letter was an unexpected shock to William and Alphonse. Kouchakgi was also at a loss. He had read Lucas' report of 1942, in which the Chief Chemist of the Department of Antiquities of Egypt had stated, "The material is a fairly soft limestone, often pink but sometimes white and sometimes pink with white patches. I analyzed several small fragments and found it to be normal limestone containing a small proportion of silica and colored, when red, by means of oxide of iron."

The two sculptures were still in Mr. Young's laboratory in Boston. Kouchakgi asked if he could see some of the other Amarna pieces. The brothers returned the following day with three sculptures, one pink and two white limestone. Kouchakgi examined these minutely with a magnifier. He then exclaimed, "If these pieces are not natural limestone, I'll eat them." Though this was not really a funny situation, all three laughed at this declaration. The Mansoors asked him what they should do next, and he advised them to show Young's letter to Lansing. Lansing responded, "I am not a geologist, but I think I am somewhat familiar with limestone. When I examined these pieces, it never occurred to me that they could have been made of some artificial material."

Why would anyone fabricate a limestone so common and plentiful? Further, to add nummulites, dendrites, oxides and various softer patches, would mean that the forger had to be a most accomplished and cunning geologist. If such a deception was possible, it could only be achieved with extreme difficulty and tremendous expense, especially in the 1920's.

It remained to be seen what was to be done now about Young's letter. William and Alphonse pointed out to Lansing that if this man could not identify a simple limestone, how could he possibly establish the authenticity of any ancient artifact. They also inquired if Young was an expert in the study of Egyptian art. Lansing answered that he believed Young's field to be paintings, but that he occasionally tested Egyptian and other sculptures.

Lansing was quite annoyed with Young's letter, but he tried to reassure the Mansoor brothers saying,"Why doesn't one of you go and see Young in Boston? Take some of the other sculptures as well and show him Lucas' report. Tell him about the opinions of the Egyptologists in Egypt. Maybe he will realize that he has made a mistake and will look at them again with a different eye." They answered that they would certainly consider his advice, that they would talk with Kouchakgi again, and would let them both know of their decision.

William went to Boston. Young received him in his laboratory and proceeded to show him around, explaining the kind of work he was engaged in. There were microscopes, tools, instruments etc., in a corner his ultraviolet light equipment. William gave Young a brief history of the Collection and Young listened with interest. Then William showed him the other three sculptures which he had brought. After Young had looked at them for some time, he shook his head and said that he could not see any sign of age on them at all. He added that he did not believe they were limestone, just like the other two pieces he had looked at previously. William asked him if he was a geologist. His answer was no. Rather than discuss his many comments on the nature of the stone, William proposed to have it examined by a known geologist. William offered to pay for the cost of the examination. Young tried to argue again about certain features of the limestone and why he thought it was not natural, but William politely declined to listen to his remarks, saying that he knew but little about limestone himself and that he would accept only the opinion of an experienced geologist. Reluctantly, Young agreed to submit two of the sculptures to Professor Esper S. Larsen, the eminent Harvard geologist.

A few weeks later, Larsen replied that the material of the two Amarna carvings which he had examined was a naturally formed foraminiferous limestone. Thus, Young reversed his opinion that the stone was a fabrication. Again, Alphonse and William conferred with Lansing and Kouchakgi. They told the Mansoor brothers to allow Young to proceed with his technical analysis of the surface of the sculptures, because if he had mad a mistake regarding the nature of the limestone, he would now be more careful in his further technical study.

But the Mansoors were not so certain of that. Somehow, they had the strongest feeling that Young was not the right person to examine Egyptian works of art. For days, Alphonse and William debated whether or not to allow him to re-examine the sculptures. In the meantime, they received a letter from their father telling them that Lansing was a good Egyptologist and that they were to trust his advice. This encouraged them to reach a decision. After all, what could Young possibly say about the sculptures? He was not an Egyptologist, and therefore could not make any pronouncement on the style of the objects. Besides, they had been seen and studied for over ten years in Egypt by several scholars of Egyptology and by many connoisseurs of Egyptian art. Thus, it was agreed that William should go and see Young again. This time, he was entrusted with nine of the ten sculptures they had in New York to insure a wider variety of weathered surfaces for study.

Young had informed the Mansoor's that it would be a few weeks before he could complete his examination. While waiting for his report, Alphonse and William took trips to Chicago, Toledo, Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and other cities, meeting Egyptologists, directors and curators of museums, art collectors and dealers. Here and there, they sold many antiquities, most of which are today the property of museums in the Eastern United States.

Now and then, while in Boston on business, they dropped by to see Young in his laboratory. Each time, they were informed that he had not completed his report and that he had to check further on one point or another. There was nothing they could do but wait.

In the autumn of 1947, Alphonse had to return to Egypt. Edmond brought to the U.S. another shipment of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Coptic antiquities, including more of the Amarna sculptures. The items had to be approved as antiquities before they could pass free of duty. To expedite matters, the Mansoors asked the customs officer in charge to call the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which had several Egyptologists among its staff. This he did, and the Boston Museum obliged by sending Dr. William Stevenson Smith.

Dr. Smith examined the group of objects very carefully and studied the Amarna sculptures with special interest. He declared that all the objects were of ancient origin, including all the Amarna sculptures.

Dr. Smith asked the Mansoor brothers if they could bring the Amarna pieces to the museum, so that Mr. Dows Dunham and Mr. Bernard Von Bothmer (then Assistant Curator, later Assistant Curator at the Brooklyn Museum) could look at them too. This they did. All three Egyptologists examined the sculptures. The Mansoors told them that nine more pieces were left in the care of Mr. Young at the Boston Museum for technical examination. Although no insinuations were made, William and Edmond felt certain that they were aware of this fact and perhaps, like Lansing, they were quietly awaiting the result of Young's technical examination.

Edmond and William met with Mr. John D. Cooney, Curator of Ancient Art at the Brooklyn Museum. They had seen him, previously, several times in Egypt and in the U.S., but had never discussed their sculptures of Amarna with him. He received them courteously, and they showed him a few sculptures from the Collection. He listened with some interest as they briefed him on its history. They informed him that they had left nine of the sculptures in Young's care for a technical examination. As news spread fast, the Mansoors felt certain that he, too, knew of this already. Unlike those who had seen any of these sculptures before, Cooney showed no particular interest for the objects he was looking at. They even felt that his expression was somewhat vacant, as that of a person who could not be sure. They remembered that he had reacted in a similar fashion every time they had shown him other fine sculptures. Perhaps this was the nature of the man. But when William asked Cooney what he thought of the sculptures, he replied that he did not know yet, that he would have to look at them again, and that it might be wiser to wait for Young's scientific analysis. They felt that they should not press him any further.

In November 1947, Edmond flew back to Egypt and William followed him in December. In Cairo, William, Alphonse, and Edmond briefed their father, Drioton, Gabra and others on their activities in the United States, particularly detailing the incidents relating to the Tell-el-Amarna sculptures technical analysis.

In March 1948, William returned to New York with more Egyptian and classical works of art. He contacted Young who replied that he had not finished his technical study of the sculptures. He decided to go and see him. It seemed a rather long time for an examination of nine sculptures. He could not help but wonder what Young was doing.

William took some other ancient objects to Boston, to show to Young. First, he showed him an extraordinary collection of sixteen votive tools inscribed with the cartouche of King Thotmes III of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The tools, made of wood, bronze and pink colored leather, comprised a hoe, a deep chisel, five axes, a knife, three adzes, two stakes, a chisel, a wooden brick mold and a flat chisel. The bladed instruments had wooden handles to which the blades were attached by the original leather thonges. The wood was softly polished, the bronze had a beautiful green and red patina, and the hardened leather looked as if new. These tools had been greatly admired for their astonishing beauty and had been studied by several Egyptologists and published by Dr. Alexandre Badawy in the Annales du Service des Antiquitiés of Egypt. (This collection was later acquired by the Oriental Institute of Chicago, where it has been on display since.) At the end of Badawy's scholarly article there is a printed account of a technical examination of the tools by Dr. Zaki Iskandar, Chief Chemist of the Cairo Museum, confirming the genuineness of all parts of the tools.

When Young saw the tools, he first asked if he could put them under his ultraviolet lamp. Naturally, William did not object. When the tools were thus placed, and after he had observed them for some time, Young declared that they could not be ancient because they did not fluoresce properly. Shocked, William looked at him in utter disbelief. William knew nothing of the ultraviolet lamp at the time, but wondered how Young could, by merely placing an object under a lamp, determine its authenticity. William knew then, that something had to be wrong with Young, his equipment or both. William then showed him a unique gold, silver and bronze group showing King Taharqa kneeling before the god Horus as a hawk. Again Young asked for permission to place it under his lamp, and again he declared that this object cold not be ancient because it did not fluoresce properly. By then William had heard enough. (This remarkable group was already famous in Egyptological circles and was purchased three years later by The Louvre. It now stands in a place of honor in its Egyptian galleries and has been illustrated in many books of art.) William did not argue with Young. He began to feel truly sorry for having allowed Young to examine the Amarna sculptures.

After returning to New York, William corresponded with museums in the United States and Canada. He agreed to send a large portion of the Mansoor collection of antiquities for exhibit at the Isaac Delgado Museum of New Orleans, the Albright Gallery of Buffalo, the Des Moines Fine Arts Center, the Omaha Art Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery. This would keep him occupied for a whole year and might encourage new buyers in other parts of the United States.

William attended the openings of these exhibits. In Dallas, he was the museum's guest, and gave several lectures on Egyptian art and history at the museum and at Southern Methodist University. In San Diego, he was also the museum's guest, and there, too, he lectured on the same subjects. Several more of the Mansoor fine antiquities were sold that year.

In Egypt, M. A. Mansoor and many of the Egyptologists had been wondering when Young's report would be ready. Not that it would have made much difference to them, but they were simply curious, particularly after William had written to tell them about Young's pronouncements regarding the tools and the group of King Taharqa.

Again, William talked to Young on the telephone. This time, Young gave assurance that his report would soon be ready. He was going to England for a few weeks and planned to study some of the Amarna material there for comparison.

The Amarna sculptures were currently in the hands of a man who had not been able to identify a simple foraminiferous limestone. What could anyone expect of this man? It was too late, even unwise to take back the sculptures from him, lest this should start dangerous unqualified rumors about the authenticity of the Collection. William thought that if the result of Young's so-called "technical" examination was negative, it could be used to determine how he arrived at his conclusions, allowing other experienced scientists to review it and refute his arguments. He could do nothing but wait for Young's report.

Copyright © 1995 Christine Mansoor

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