Friday, 2 May 2014

Amarna royal portrait

Egyptian Amarna style royal portrait
(red glass inlay)
I found this Egyptian eighteenth dynasty Amarna style red glass inlay for a client a few years ago in the stock of a London dealer. It had been in an English collection before that but its origins are unknown. However, William Flinders Petrie, who excavated Tell el Amarna is known to have presented the occasional Egyptian antiquity to friends as well as collecting himself. What remains of his collection is now housed at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London.

A problem with the highly stylized Amarna art is that the identity of various portraits is uncertain. There is, of course, a tendency to identify such portraits with either Akhenaten or Nefertiti. All that can be said, for certain with this piece, is that it is a royal portrait as there had been a crown (indicated by the recess).

Neues Museum, Berlin
Variously described as Akhenaten 
Nefertiti, Smenkhkare 
and Meritaten,
or Tutankhamen 
and Ankhesenamun
My own guess is that it is Smenkhkare, but I would not wager on it. In fact, I am not even certain if it is male or female (someone suggested Nefertiti). An Egyptologist to whom it was shown authenticated it but had no opinion as to the identity of the royal person depicted. You can see some other inlays of the style here. While those are finer than this one, this mysterious portrait is still quite valuable. Being quite the bargain, I settled on the seller's price as a commission. with a further very small percentage of its future sale price to be paid later.

These sort of situations can be tricky ― a general rule I have is that if I find something of great value in the possession of an individual then I will inform them of its potential value and offer to handle its sale for a brokerage fee of 5%. However, if it is part of a dealer's stock, I feel that it is up to them to do the proper research. I think that this differentiation is recognized within British law, and if someone bought something from a member of the public (but not from a dealer) for an absurdly low price, then they could face legal problems later.

These days, ancient Egyptian art is more difficult to find in London than it was in the mid sixties and the prices have skyrocketed over the years. I could have bought a painted wooden ushabti box for eight pounds from one London dealer back then ― Oh well, hindsight is always 20/20!

Personally, though, the discovery is the thing for me and any potential profit is only secondary. I like to be able to attribute things that were previously unidentified or misidentified, but other than identifying it as an Amarna royal portrait I cannot say much more. The original dealer had just omitted the "royal" designation but had properly identified the style and period. Who do you think it might be?


  1. hi john,interesting read.i once bought a greek cup for £500 from a well known london dealer [a member of the antiquities dealers association] which i knew was a bargain.i wrote a piece about the buy for a website run by a doctor friend of mine about five years ago,[dr bron liptkin,a psychiatrist and one of the founding members of the priory]
    it makes collecting all that more exciting when you can research your piece and find something new about it,or when you know more than the dealer knows.ive lost count of how many times i see missdescribed pieces on dealers websites, even the big auction houses make mistakes.

  2. Hi Kyri,

    What a rare and beautiful skyphos! I think it would likely go much higher than the estimate -- it is such an unusual painting. It is amazing what can be found in London, and it has always been that way. Some of the better stuff has travelled back and forth across the Atlantic many times. That things just go to the U.S, is quite the urban myth. I suppose it all started back in the days of the American millionaires of the twenties. The most unusual London find I have heard of happened some years ago -- someone found an old crate in a London warehouse that was full of "brand new" British civil war cavalry boots! They had probably been in the warehouse since the seventeenth century. The thrill of the hunt is half of the fun.