Exhibitions/ Buried Finds

Buried Finds: Textile Collectors in Egypt

At The Met Fifth Avenue
January 31 / 2012–July 15 / 2012
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

At the turn of the century, from about 1880 to 1930, large quantities of textiles from the late Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods were excavated, mainly from burials in the cemeteries of the Egyptian cities of Panopolis (Akhmim) and Antinoë (Sheikh Ibada) and of the Fayum. The practice of burying the dead in several layers of clothing and wrapping them in shrouds secured with bandages or tapes promised significant numbers of textiles for excavation. Prior to the discovery of a large cache of papyri, dating from the fifth through tenth century, in the winter of 1877–78 at Arsinoe (Crocodilopolis) in the Fayum, little attention was paid to the later periods of Egyptian history or art by either the academic community or the larger public. The find opened new avenues of exploration, which led to the often unsystematic excavation of sites in search of textiles and grave goods. Excavations were overseen by archaeologists, both professionally trained and amateur, as well as dealers and collectors. The result is thousands of fragments and relatively few complete textiles in museum collections, and scanty evidence regarding find sites and burial context. In some cases, poorly preserved textiles were trimmed to make them more palatable for collectors; in others, dealers trimmed away the linen ground, catering to collectors' preferences for color and pattern and their own desire to have more textiles for the market.

International venues—such as the Paris Exposition Universelle, the 1900 world's fair, and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, known as the St. Louis World's Fair—introduced the public to the textiles of Late Antique Egypt. Albert Gayet (1856–1916), a French archaeologist who excavated at Antinoë, exhibited textiles in Paris. His bold personality and theatrical displays of archaeological material made him one of the best known figures of the period. In 1901, Gayet discovered near Antinoë two fully clothed mummies, whom he identified using burial inscriptions as Thaïs and Sérapion. Thaïs was a fourth-century courtesan who was converted to Christianity by the monk Sérapion. Her story was the subject of a novel by Anatole France (1890), an opera by Jules Massenet (1894), a play by Paul Wilstatch (1911), and five silent films produced in France, Italy, and America (between 1911 and 1917). Gayet's mummies were displayed together with other grave goods in a summer blockbuster at the Musée Guimet in Paris. He excavated many more mummies, each given an equally interesting pedigree.

Archaeologists, dealers, and collectors frequently organized textiles into albums composed of paper boards onto which were sewn fragments, often several to a page. This practice was adopted from the textile industry, which used presentation portfolios grouped by fabric, color, and pattern. Two examples of pages from a textile album are on view in this exhibition. About the turn of the century, museums made their first acquisitions of this material. It was not unusual for museums and collectors to purchase from dealers large lots or complete collections. Textiles from Late Antique Egypt came to be seen as important to the history of Byzantine art and featured prominently in art-historical discourse, such as the work of Alois Riegl (Die Ägyptischen Textilfunde in K.K. Österreich. Museum. Allgemeine Charasteristik und Katalog [Vienna, 1889]). The bold colors and patterns attracted the admiration of modern artists. Both Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) saw Gayet's exhibition in Paris and began their own collections of Late Antique textiles, as did a number of their contemporaries.

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Born in Engerda (present-day Germany) in 1840, Otto Theodor Graf became one of the most important Egyptian antiquities dealers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was among the earliest antiquarians to search for antiquities dating from the late Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods. The owner of a carpet business in Vienna with a branch in Cairo, Graf counted major museums in Europe and America among his clientele, as well as individuals such as Sigmund Freud. Although he did not sponsor excavations, he made regular trips to Egypt to direct his local agents. Following the discovery in the winter of 1877–78 at Arsinoe (Crocodilopolis) in the Fayum of an important lot of papyri dating from the fifth through tenth century, written in Arabic, Greek, Pahlavi, and other languages, Graf was contacted by Josef von Karabacek (1845–1918), Professor of the History of the Orient and related fields at the University of Vienna and later head of the K. K. Hofbibliothek (now the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek), who encouraged him to look for additional papyri. In 1881 and 1882, Graf acquired and sent to Vienna some ten thousand papyri from Medinet el-Fayum and Ehnas (ancient Heracleopolis) in Lower Egypt. The papyri were purchased by Archduke Rainer of Austria, who founded the collection Papyrus Archduke Rainer in 1883; this collection forms the bulk of the Papyrus Collection of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. Graf continued to search for papyri, many of which were acquired by Archduke Rainer. In 1887, he acquired some 330 late Roman mummy portraits around the area of el-Rabayat in the Fayum. Ninety formed a traveling exhibition prior to sale in Europe and America. Graf engaged his school friend Georg Ebers (1837–98), Professor of Egyptology at Leipzig and a journalist and novelist, to publish the portraits. In 1888, he sold a large number of the so-called Amarna letters to the Berlin Museum (now the Vorderasiatisches Museum).

Graf shared an interest in textiles with Josef von Karabacek, who studied medieval textiles from 1870 to 1881. Following Graf's success with papyri, Karabacek urged him to search for ancient cemeteries where textiles were likely to be found. In 1882, Graf's agents discovered a large necropolis in the Fayum. Graf sent a shipment of decorated clothing fragments, which he dated from the third to the ninth century, to Vienna. Karabacek published many of Graf's finds from Egypt in his Katalog her Theodor Graf'schen Funde in Aegypten (Vienna, 1883). The textiles were exhibited in 1883 at the K. K. Österreichisches Museum für Kunst and Industrie, Vienna (now the MAK—Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst / Gegenwartskunst); the exhibition marked the German-speaking public's introduction to the textiles of Late Antique Egypt. That same year the MAK acquired from Graf the 769 textiles that form the foundation of its collection. His success in acquiring textiles of the period is reflected in the large number of examples in major museum collections with a Graf provenance, including 622 in the Musée Historique des Tissus, Lyon, and 500 in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. In 1889, the Metropolitan Museum made its first significant acquisition of Late Antique textiles from the collection of Theodor Graf, a selection of which are on view in this exhibition. Numbering 369, these textiles, along with the gift of 860 more from George F. Baker in 1890 (examples of which can be seen in Gallery 302), form the core of the Metropolitan's substantial collection of textiles from this period.

The impact of Dikran Garabed Kelekian—art collector and dealer—on the history of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collecting, particularly in the United States, is difficult to overstate. Described by the art critic Roger Fry (1866–1934) as having an "omnivorous acquisitiveness," he is best known for his collections of modern painting and Islamic art. Kelekian acted as an adviser to great American collectors, including Henry Walters, whose collection forms the core of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; George Blumenthal, president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1934 to 1941; and Louisine (1855–1929) and Henry Havemeyer (1847–1907), whose collection gift remains one of the most important in the Metropolitan's history (see "The H.O. Havemeyer Family" within the 2011 exhibition The Making of a Collection).

Born in 1868 in Kayseri, Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire, Kelekian was the son of an Armenian banker. He studied ancient Near Eastern history at Robert College in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and continued his education in Paris. In 1892, Kelekian and his brother opened an art and antiquarian business in Constantinople. Kelekian soon garnered a reputation as a knowledgeable collector and dealer specializing in Islamic art, pottery in particular. He came to America in 1893 for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, acting as the Commissioner for the Persian pavilion. Not long after, Kelekian opened his first New York gallery, known as Le Musée de Bosphore, and one in Paris; he later opened a Cairo gallery. He served as a member of the jury for the Paris Exposition Universelle, the world's fair in 1900, and about 1902, he was appointed Persian Council in New York for his promotion of Persian art abroad; his gallery became the Persian Consulate. Kelekian's collections were featured in a number of international exhibitions: the Exposition des Art Musulmans at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (1903), the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, known as the St. Louis World's Fair (1904), the groundbreaking Meisterwerke Muhammedanischer Kunst (Masterworks of Muhammadan Art) in Munich (1910), and the Exposition internationale d'art byzantin, also at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, one of the first exhibitions to present Byzantine art to the public (1931). He also exhibited his collections at various museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1895, 1989, 1911) and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (from 1910 to 1951). Upon Kelekian's death in 1951, his son Charles (1900–1982) continued to operate a New York gallery.

Textiles, including those from late Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic Egypt, numbered among Kelekian’s many interests. Although he did not participate in or sponsor excavations in Egypt, Kelekian’s Cairo gallery served as a base for purchasing Egyptian antiquities, including Late Antique, commonly referred to as Coptic, textiles. Kelekian was collecting and selling these textiles at a time when the wider public was introduced to the later periods of Egyptian history and art. A Kelekian textile exhibited at the Byzantine Exposition in 1931 was the first Late Antique textile purchased by Werner Abegg, founder of the Abegg-Stiftung in Riggisberg, Switzerland, one of the most important textile collections and centers for textile conservation. Kelekian also sold textiles to modern painters, most notably the Fauve painters Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and André Derain (1880–1954). In 1943, the American artist Milton Avery (1885–1965), painted Kelekian in his gallery (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.400.1), posed before a Coptic textile. Sometime in the early twentieth century, Kelekian assembled an album of approximately one thousand textile fragments, containing ten portfolios labeled “collection de tissus. Européen, Persan & Orientaux.” In 2002, Kelekian’s granddaughter, Nanette B. Kelekian, donated the remaining 968 textiles in the album, 63 of which were Late Antique, and an additional 27 textiles of the same period to the Metropolitan. Two of the album pages and many of the textiles are on view in this gallery.