About The Met/ Collection Areas/ Ancient Near Eastern Art/ Kings, Dealers, and Librarians: The Story of a Statue of Shulgi

Kings, Dealers, and Librarians: The Story of a Statue of Shulgi

Last year’s tribute to provenance research thanked curator Agnete Lassen for access to the dealer Razouk David Messayeh’s correspondence in the Yale Babylonian Collection’s curatorial files. The digital resource Agnete provided about another dealer, Ibrahim Elias Géjou (1868–1942), triggered the research we are presenting here to mark the Fifth International Provenance Research Day (April 12th, 2023). While browsing the extensive correspondence between I.E. Géjou and the curators of the Yale Babylonian Collection from 1911 to 1932, we stumbled on a photograph of an inscribed sculpture and recognized the fragmentary statue of Shulgi from Wilberforce Eames’ collection, currently on loan at The Met (L.1983.95a, b). The statue was part of Eames’ collection of Babylonian tablets and seals bequeathed to The New York Public Library (Manuscripts and Archives Division) at the time of his death in 1937. The Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art is very appreciative for the generous loan of the statue of Shulgi since 1983, and we are pleased to fulfill the Museum’s commitment to publish long term loans on its website by sharing the results of our provenance research as well as new photographs of the sculpture.

Frontal view of statue of King Shulgi of Ur. Lent by Wilberforce Eames Collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (L.1983.95a, b).

Frontal view of statue of King Shulgi of Ur. Lent by Wilberforce Eames Collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (L.1983.95a, b).

This statue, made out of black hornfels, is attributed to King Shulgi of Ur (c. 2094–2046 BCE) due to the content of the Sumerian inscription carved on it. This inscription names the king and the personnel of the temple estate of the god Nindaraa local deity who was worshipped particularly in the ancient state of Lagash in southern Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq. Additionally, in typical Mesopotamian fashion, the statue was given a specific name: “Shulgi, who has been given strength by Nindara, is the breath of life of the city.” Although the upper body of this figure is not preserved, the fragmentary object seen at the waist level suggests that the king might have held a stand or a vessel in his clasped hands, most likely associated with a libation ritual.[i]

We rarely find images of the objects discussed in the correspondence so this was a real documentary gift. The “attached photographs” are often separated from the letter and stored elsewhere or returned to the dealer if the purchase of the object is declined. Géjou sent this photograph to Yale curator Raymond P. Dougherty on January 14, 1927 and described the inscription as a dedication to “Nin-Dar” by Dungi, former reading of the name of Shulgi, according to the French epigraphist, Abbé Henri de Genouillac (1881–1940). Géjou’s appellation, “black granit stone,” denotes that he felt that what was important to Dougherty was the inscription not the fact that it was written on a statue. Despite Géjou’s efforts to convince Dougherty and later Ettalene Mears Grice, Assistant Curator in the Babylonian Collection, that the statue is genuine, Yale didn’t acquire the piece. Géjou maintained five views of the statue in one of his Album “Collection J.E. Géjou” kept in the Géjou family and kindly brought to our attention by Nadia Aït Said-Ghanem. Unfortunately, the photographs of artefacts in his albums do not hold any contextual information but they give us an idea of the restorations done by the dealer as the statue has been restored since. Three other “photo-albums of artefacts Ibrahim had once owned, and which he presumably kept as a record of the objects he had sold, both for his own pleasure and to show collectors his portfolio”[ii] are now in the Musée du Louvre.

Profile view of statue of King Shulgi of Ur

Left: Profile view of statue of King Shulgi of Ur. Lent by Wilberforce Eames Collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (L.1983.95a, b).

Right: Same view showing old restorations from Album “Collection J.E. Géjou”. Reproduced with the kind permission of Ibrahim Elias Géjou’s great grandchildren.

The statue reappeared two years later in the hands of the American diplomat, archaeologist and dealer Edgar James Banks (1866–1945). On November 1st, 1929, Banks offered the statue “found at Tello (…) undoubtedly the statue of Gudea” to Wilberforce Eames (1855–1937), an American bibliographer and librarian who showed interest in purchasing it. Banks sent the statue to New York on November 8th while the sale was confirmed on November 18th for 510 dollars. The information related to Eames’ acquisitions is preserved in his notebooks archived in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library.[i] Eames catalogued the statue as BB and corrected Banks’ attribution by noting “Statue from Tello (Dungi of Ur) not Gudea”.

Letter from Banks to Eames

Letter from Banks to Eames and its annotated back, Babylonian Tablets (Eames collection – MssCol 172). Photo by the author, reproduced with the kind permission of the Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

The site of Tello (ancient Girsu) was excavated by a series of French-led campaigns from 1877 to 1933. In between these official campaigns, numerous episodes of unofficial excavations were carried out at the site. One of those took place between the years 1924 and 1925, leading to the unearthing of numerous statues of Gudea as well as to their dispersal to various public and private collections all around the world. It is well documented that Ibrahim Elias Géjou was involved in the sale of many of those statues. In fact, the seated statue of Gudea housed at The Met (59.2) can likewise be traced back to Géjou. In that sense, Edgar James Banks’ incorrect attribution of the Shulgi statue might have stemmed from his desire to take advantage of the growing interest in statues of Gudea at the time.

Still, Banks’ alleged provenance of Tello seems plausible on the basis of the historical context. Girsu was an important part of the aforementioned state of Lagash, which was ruled by the Kings of Ur at the end of the third millennium BCE (the “Ur III Period”). Therefore, the presence of a statue of a king of Ur at the city of Girsu would not be out of the ordinary. In addition, as we noted earlier, the god Nindara who is mentioned in the inscription is closely associated with the state of Lagash and the city of Girsu in both the textual and the archaeological evidence. Thus, it is possible that this statue of Shulgi derives from the excavations at Tello.

We are grateful to the Wilberforce Eames Collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, for lending us this remarkable sculpture, which has been on display in the Mesopotamian galleries for the past 40 years. We would like to thank Julie Golia, Michelle McCarthy-Behler, Tal Nadan, and Deborah M. Straussman, from the Manuscripts and Archives Division, for their assistance during our research, which helped us turn the chance find of the Yale photograph into a deeper provenance investigation.

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[i] Richard L. Zettler, "Part Two: The Statue," Dumu-e2-Dub-Ba-A: Studies in Honor of Ake W. Sjoberg. ed. H. Behrens et al. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1989, pp. 70-77.

[ii] Nadia Aït Said-Ghanem, “The Antiquities Dealer Ibrahim Elias Géjou: Putting a Face to a Name”, Journal Asiatique 2023, forthcoming.

[iii] Zettler 1989, p. 65.