Here at Pax Romana we sell history from across the globe. However, our speciality lies in classical antiquities. Having already touched on this period in our Collecting Roman Art Guide, we thought we’d turn to Egypt. There are many fantastic pieces of history that have come out of Ancient Egypt. It’s no wonder for centuries there has been a great interest in collecting Egyptian antiquities. Want to know the basics? We’ll guide you through what to buy and what to look out for.
What are we classing as ‘Egyptian Art’?
In the context of antiquities, we are talking about art from Ancient Egypt, dated 3150 BC – 332 BC; with there sometimes being pieces from Greco-Roman Egypt. This is such a vast swathe of history that spans from the Great Pyramids and Sphinx of the Old Kingdom to Cleopatra at the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The Ancient Egyptians are frequently seen to be one of the great first world civilisations. Famed for their architecture, writing, material culture and technology.
Archaeological digs of Egyptian sites were commonly run by colonial powers and local authorities from the 19th Century. These were often of tombs – like the famous excavation that found Tutankhamun’s burial in 1922 – and although these digs were in partnership with Egyptian academics and workers, many of the best pieces were absorbed into the western market. The attitude has changed and you can see in the excavation of the tombs at Saqqara recently that there is an international coalition with local experts and peoples having leading roles.
Why do people like Collecting Egyptian Antiquities?
People love to collect Egyptian Art is because its artefact rich history is one they’re quite familiar with. The iconography of Ancient Egypt is seen very frequently in the world around us – hieroglyphics, the pyramids, Egyptian mummies. Of course, the reality of the history is always very different to what we conjure up through modern media! Collecting Egyptian artefacts can be a way to appreciate the complexities of Ancient Egypt that you might normally miss. At the end of this article we’ve listed some references if you want to learn more but for now let’s look at some of the beautiful pieces that you could collect and dive into their individual histories.
Types of Egyptian Art
In both public temples and private homes, figures and statues of Egyptian figures were used as focal points of religious devotions. The gods were seen to govern all elements of natural life, for example the rising of the sun and the yearly flooding of the nile. However, the main way to communicate with them was when their ba inhabited images of them in the human world. Therefore, to be to have the chance of interaction with a god, a figure of them was needed. These images needed to be in a specifically designated, sacred place. It had to be fit for a god to inhabit.
One of the gods we see most frequently depicted in religious depictions is Osiris. The guarder of the underworld he is depicted as being a dead pharaoh in his statues and figurines. This is perhaps no surprise when you learn that it was thought when a king died they were believed to become Osiris. His statues were placed with burials to help guide the dead through the afterlife safely and there was a yearly festival of Osiris where a statue of him was paraded through the streets.
The first of the categories with a specific funerary context are the Ushabti. These are small figures that were made of wood, metal or most commonly faience – a quartz like material that was seen to be magical. They were buried on mass with important Egyptian individuals, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Their purpose was to help ensure the resurrection of an individual and act as their servants in the afterlife. We see in the Book of the Dead, spell 6 gives the ushabti this purpose:
“O ushabti, if I am called upon and assigned to do any work which is done in the necropolis, … you will assign yourself for me to them everyday. … ‘I will do them. Here I am,’ so you will say.”
These pieces are very small and portable and hold this very clear religious role, therefore many love to collect them. Indeed, we nearly always have at least one ushabti in our Classical auctions – see if we have any at the moment.
Mummy Masks and Other Funerary Pieces
Perhaps the most recognisable Egyptian artefacts are the mummy masks and sarcophagus that were discovered in the tombs of Ancient Egypt. Each representing an individual Egyptian in their idealised form, they are emotive and stunning pieces of ancient history. Most of the time these are made of wood, bead or plaster. However you of course also get those such as, not to mention him again, Tutankhamun’s golden death mask!
Alongside the masks themselves, you can also sometimes purchase fragments of coffins or other inscribed tablets that were placed in tombs to protect the dead.
Jewellery and Amulets
Looking for something smaller? Something wearable? Then it’s worth looking into the beautiful jewellery that was produced by the ancient Egyptians. There’s a long history of considerable interest in Egyptian jewellery from as far back as the contemporaries who traded with the Egyptians for the beautiful pieces they created. There’s a variety in the type of jewellery you can collect from gold rings with carnelian cats to beaded necklaces with amulets. Indeed, amulets are a key part of Egyptian jewellery as they were, and still are, worn for protection. Common icons you’ll see are the healing eye of Horus and the Scarab beetle.
The Egyptian didn’t only make beautiful jewellery and religious artefacts, they also had pieces from their everyday life. These could be beautifully carved steatite (soapstone) bowls and vessels that they would have used for eating and drinking. However, there are even rarer pieces such as the intact Egyptian sandals. The dry conditions of the desert meant the reed sandals could stay intact and are a fascinating look in the ancient everyday life. Learn more about Egyptian sandals here!
What to look out for?
Like any antiquities buying there are certain questions to bear in mind when buying Egyptian Art. It has long been popular to collect Egyptian Art so it’s important to be aware of reproductions that are on the market. This includes those made as far back as the 19th Century! A way to avoid buying reproduction pieces unwillingly is to buy from reputable antiquities dealers, like Pax Romana. Additionally, look for good provenances where an item has been in important collections or even museums! It’s also important to ensure your antiquities have been in sale in the west for some time. Egypt brought a law in in 1983 that declared all Egyptian antiquities found subsequently were thenceforth owned by the government. As we’ve already stressed, checking provenance is an important part of this and buying through a reputable gallery such as Pax Romana that ensure all items they sell are acquired legally.