Chapter 9: Disaster in Cairo
Violent riots to dislodge the British from the Suez Canal were taking place in Egypt and suddenly Cairo was on fire. Many institutions, cinemas, restaurants, department stores, etc., which were thought to be dominated by the British and other foreign interests were destroyed. The Shepheard's Hotel, one of the city's most famous landmarks was also destroyed (see: Shepheard's Hotel, Nina Nelson, Barrie & Rockliff, London 1960).
The M. A. Mansooor Gallery in Shepheard's had totally disintegrated. First established by M. A. Mansoor in 1904, it had been there uninterruptedly until that infamous fire destroyed it in January 1952. All antiquities, records, library and other important documents had vanished forever. Great masterpieces of art that had survived time, earthquakes and invasions had perished.
In the meantime, an auction sale at Parke-Bernet in New York took place in January 1952. Because most directors of American museums would not attend the sale, for reasons I have mentioned in the preceding pages, M. A. Mansoor had offered an unconditional guarantee of the authenticity of each and every object in the sale (this was stated in the catalog's foreword). The sale took place and the prices fetched by most of the important antiquities were ridiculously low. Thus, a gold, silver and bronze group of King Taharqa-one of the rarest Egyptian works of art, attractive as it could be -which had been offered to or exhibited in many American museums, sold for an unbelievably small amount. None of the American museums bid on it, therefore, it was purchased by the Louvre, at a time when French and European museums could ill afford the purchase of any art. It is impossible to describe here all the other masterpieces that went for similar absurd prices.
It is interesting to note that after the result of the sale appeared in the newspapers, Cooney immediately wrote to congratulate William Mansoor on its success. Some time later, when asked by a collector about the genuineness of the pieces in the sale, Cooney replied that vast portions of it were not ancient and referred the collector to the Parke-Bernet Gallery on this matter. If Cooney thought that many of the antiquities were forgeries, why had he bothered to congratulate William at all?
In the summer of 1952, a military coup d'état forced Farouk to leave Egypt. The Abbé Drioton, one of the giants of Egyptology of this century, and for many years (1936 - 1952) the Director General of the Antiquities Department of Egypt, was forced to resign. In France, he assumed a distinguished position as Professor at the College de France and adviser to the French National Museums.
Though the Mansoor family had never been active in the political life in Egypt, suddenly their situation had become precarious. They knew that the new regime would look with disfavor on all those who had a long association with Farouk. They felt they had to speed up their plans for immigrating to the United States.
In October 1952, Alphonse came to the United States. After a few weeks stay in New York, William and Alphonse realized that Young, Cooney and their followers in Eastern Museums had done their best to discredit not only their Tell-el-Amarna Collection, but any and all other artifacts they handled. In fact, in "The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin" (Spring 1992), in the introduction section, Ms. Joan R. Mertens, Curator of Greek and Roman Art, writes: "About 1947 Norbert Schimmel met Jack Cooney, who served as curator of Egyptian art, first at the Brooklyn Museum and later at the Cleveland Museum of Art...she recalls Mr. Schimmel's account of an early -if not the first- meeting with Jack Cooney. Norbert Schimmel had bought some pieces from the Mansour collection at Parke-Bernet in October 1947. He showed his acquisitions to Cooney, whose response was 'Do you want to hear something pretty or do you want to know the truth?' Mr. Schimmel asked for the truth, only to be told that his purchases consisted partly of forgeries and partly of insignificant items." Not one single item sold at that auction was ever returned to Parke-Bernet or the Mansoors. (In the Wall Street Journal of December 18, 1992, Ms. Alexandra Peers reported that the estate sale of Norbert Schimmel consisting of ancient Egyptian and Greek artifacts sold for $4.2 million.)
The Mansoors' reputation was in jeopardy. Just who were they to dare oppose the opinion and decision of Young and Cooney regarding the Amarna sculptures? When museums and collectors wrote Young and Cooney for advice regarding the sculptures, they always answered by giving a negative opinion. As providence willed it, some of these damaging letters fell in the Mansoors' hands in later years. William and Alphonse knew now what to expect from these two individuals and their growing number of supporters in the museums of the United States, and perhaps elsewhere in Europe.
They felt they had to leave New York. They were still sore and confused from the loss of their gallery at Sepheard's Hotel. It did not take them long to choose California for their new home. There, they would be far from trouble, at least they thought so.
William and Alphonse shipped most of their antiquities to Los Angeles, bought a car and drove West. They stopped only in Denver. Dr. and Mrs. Otto Karl Bach received them at the museum with great warmth. In the following years, their friendship grew. After a pleasant two-day visit, during which they discussed their problem about Amarna and other important works of Egyptian art, they were off again and reached Los Angeles a few days before Christmas. They began to settle down.
In March 1953, they opened an Art Gallery in Beverly Hills. They put aside their sculptures of Tell-el-Amarna and began to reorganize their business and their lives. Except for some correspondence with friendly museums, they did not approach the Eastern United States or European museums for two years. They thought that if feelings were allowed to cool off for a while, perhaps some of the newly appointed directors and curators might reconsider the case of their Amarna sculptures.
Alphonse, Edmond and William traveled between the United States, Europe and Egypt for a few years, while the younger brothers and a sister began to arrive in California. M. A. Mansoor and Mrs. Mansoor followed.
As the Beverly Hills gallery could not produce a sufficient income for all their needs, Michel and Alfred sought other employment. They studied and trained for banking, and in a few years both became vice-presidents of their institutions.
A new hotel in Beverly Hills, the Beverly Hilton, had opened and the Mansoors moved their gallery to a larger store in its lobby. M. A. Mansoor, though in his seventies, and almost blind, went to work with his sons every day. As at Shepheard's, he still delighted many of their customers and friends with his stories and anecdotes.
M. A. Mansoor thought the time had come to revive the Amarna question. In Seattle, M. A. Mansoor and his son William showed Richard Fuller the report of Iskandar and Mustafa, but though he had been for years their good customer, and though he implicitly trusted M. A. Mansoor, he showed no desire to become involved in a problem as controversial as that of the Amarna's. He assured the Mansoors that as long as Young's and Cooney's opinions were negative, he could not consider any of these sculptures for purchase by his museum.
Following this, M. A. Mansoor suggested that they should inquire about some chemists, petrologists and geologists to subject the sculptures to further scientific tests. The person to help them in this matter would be Dr. Fred H. Stross, a scientist as well as a student of Egyptology. Stross had already met M. A. Mansoor and the family in Egypt. He had purchased several fine antiquities from the Mansoor Gallery in Cairo. After having examined some of the Amarna sculptures himself, Stross decided to acquire a small but magnificent head of Akhenaten in pink limestone. The Mansoors went to see him in Berkeley and again discussed Amarna with him. Ever since he had first seen the sculptures in Cairo, then in New York and California, Stross had become one of the most eloquent protagonists of the Collection. A superior chemist, but also a remarkable connoisseur of fine arts, he applied his science to prove the authenticity of the Amarna Sculptures. Stross was eager to help with the problem.
Copyright © 1995 Christine Mansoor
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