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Buried Finds: Textile Collectors in Egypt

January 31–July 15, 2012

Theodor Graf (1840–1903)

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.