Sometime in the early 1920's a Cairo antique dealer, M.A. Mansoor, bought two small limestone portraits, ostensibly from the Amarna Period, from a fellow dealer, Tawadros Guirgis Ghoubrial. Mansoor who had established his business in 1904 -- a busines s he held for fifty years, and in which he developed a distinguished reputation -- knew that the objects had been rejected by another well-established Cairo dealer, on the grounds that they could not be genuine because the seller had not asked high enough a price. To Mansoor, the two pieces showed a thin, slightly glossy patina, a number of dendrites on worked surfaces, and a high degree of artisanship of the style associated with the Amarna period; he judged them to be genuine.
Over the years, Mansoor purchased over 100 pieces - heads, busts, reliefs, statuettes and fragments, all of pink, reddish and white foraminiferous limestone. They were kept separate from his other antiquities with which he dealt in his normal activiti es as a dealer, and which did not constitute as specific an entity as the Amarna group.
By 1938, his Amarna collection began to attract wide attention. Mansoor who had been appointed antique dealer to the late King Farouk,- who at the time was interested in archaeology- sold the king a few pieces. As word about the collection began to sp read, other pieces were purchased by well-to-do Egyptian and foreign collectors. Mansoor thus continued to finance the acquisition of additional objects. Some jealous dealers now began to spread rumors of forgery about the collection on the grounds that they were too good to be authentic.
The late Abbe' Etienne Drioton, one of the great scholars of Egyptology and Director General of the Department of Antiquities in Egypt at the time, sought to acquire the collection for the Egyptian Museum, on the eve of World War II. In connection wi th this objective, the collection was submitted to Mr. Alfred Lucas, Director of the Chemical Department of Egypt, Honorary Consulting Chemist to the Department of Antiquities and author of a classic work on Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industry. His b rief report left no doubt as to the authenticity of the objects.They were classed as genuine antiquities that , according to Lucas, were "probably found, not in a grave,or buried in the earth, but in a room at El Amarna, which was gradually sanded up." This, he indicated, accounted for the excellent condition of most of the pieces.
In 1947, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through its curator of Egyptology, asked Mr. Mansoor to allow them to examine a few pieces, for the purpose of purchasing them. Accordingly Mr. Mansoor sent two of his sons to New York, with a few pieces from t he collection.
The curator was unable to arrive at a decision and asked that the pieces be submitted to William J. Young, then a consultant to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, for petrological and chemical tests. What the Mansoors did not know was that Mr. Young had little or no experience with Egyptian antiquities--his specialty was the critical analysis of Renaissance paintings.
Young's preliminary finding was a shock: "The results of the various examinations we have given the heads indicate that the heads are of a modern origin. The larger of the two heads was examined from a minute fragment and appears not to be a natural m aterial. It shows all the indications of being a made stone which could be fabricated in a great many ways. The heads in question did not show any indication of age from Ultraviolet or microscopic examination."
"In my opinion, the above heads are of a fairly modern origin. A full report will follow in the near future."
Now, it is not difficult to distinguish foraminiferous limestone, which has tiny shells imbedded in the limestone matrix, from a "made" stone by a simple examination with a magnifying glass. Routine chemical analysis would dispel any doubt. When chall enged on this point, Young sought the advice of Prof. E.S. Larsen, Professor of Geology at Harvard University. Professor Larsen quickly determined that the Amarna pieces were indeed natural stone, and several months later Mr. Young finally reversed himsel f on this point. However, at the insistence of the prospective buyer (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Young was allowed to proceed with his examination and it was another year and a half before the promised report was issued.
Young's report gives the results of examination by ultraviolet light, and low power microscope. The report contains many conclusory statements to the effect that the objects are "of fairly modern origin," but it never provides any factual or rational evidence for this assertion. The value of ultraviolet examination of limestone has never been demonstrated in any publication.
This development was quite unexpected. Even though the report, as a scientific statement was valueless, this would not necessarily be obvious to the non-scientist. Moreover, Young occupied a conspicuous position in one of the great museums of the Unit ed States.
In Egypt, the impact of the Young report was not as significant at the time. The Department of Antiquities was still interested and the Abbe' Drioton, its director, was still determined to acquire the collection for the Egyptian Museum. Being a foreig ner, and moreover a dignitary of an alien church, his tenure was not without political difficulties, especially in cases such as this, which involved large sums of money. To remove any doubt in the case, the objects were subjected to the best analyses ava ilable. The leading archaeological chemist in Egypt, now that Lucas had died, was Dr. Zaki Iskandar. He was Chief Chemist of the Museum Laboratories; and it was he and his assistant Dr. Zahira Mustafa who were charged with making a detailed report on the authenticity of the objects. The analysis -- chemical and petrological -- certified the authenticity of the objects, but the Egyptian Museum did not acquire them. The report came out in November 1950, and before the negotiations could be completed and the decision on the large sums of money involved could be made, the old regime (of King Farouk) was overthrown and the new regime was not in a position to purchase expensive antiques.
For several years there was a lull in activities relating to the El Amarna Collection. There was unrest in Egypt, and those of the sons of M.A. Mansoor who were in the United States were busy trying to get established there. However, they became incre asingly aware of trouble selling not only the objects in question but also their other antiques. They decided to get at the source of the difficulty, and to attempt a generally recognized vindication of their El Amarna Collection. It occurred to them t hat scientific evidence had been recognized in many notorious cases of forgery and authentication, so sixteen additional experts in the fields that were thought most pertinent to the case were approached during the following years. The objective was to de velop irrefutable evidence relating to the true age of the Amarna artifacts, from as many diverse sources as possible. Authorities in fields that might be useful in providing such evidence applied relevant techniques. The investigation was not routine in any way.
All of the investigating scientists submitted reports which led to only one conclusion: the El Amarna objects were ancient artifacts. Some of these scientists directly commented upon and criticized the Young report--many denouncing it in quite harsh t erms. When confronted with the evidence, Young did not respond to the Mansoors and never defended his report. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts also preferred to ignore the new evidence. It is ironic that the prospective buyer -- The Metropolitan Museum -- n ever bothered to consider the new evidence.
Meanwhile, most scholars of Egyptology and Museums Directors, preferred to stay on the sideline. In fact, only one credentialed Egyptologist -- Hans Wolfgang Muller of the University of Munich -- has offered a professional opinion of the collection. A fter viewing photographs of the objects, he declared that they were not ancient. Dr. Muller's arguments were effectively destroyed by scientists at the Universite' Pierre & Marie Curie (Sorbonne), other scholars of Egyptology, and Dr. Zaki Iskandar. In th e United States, John D. Cooney of the Brooklyn Museum, and later at the Cleveland Museum, also declared that the objects were of recent origin, but he based his opinion solely on William J. Young's discredited report.
What makes this case very intriguing is that several scholars and Museum directors, who have never examined or even seen the collection have pronounced it a forgery. They have tended to rely on the discredited opinions of Young and Muller and the hears ay of others.
No other ancient artifacts have ever been submitted to as many or as varied tests as the Mansoor Amarna Collection. As it stands, the Mansoors have 19 scientists' opinions, favoring the authenticity of the objects and refuting Young's report. On the s cholars' front, seven scholars have authenticated the collection, as against Muller's sole negative opinion.
This controversy was started in the United States and was allowed to degenerate into an international conspiracy by the actions of the few who have adopted a prejudiced attitude. However, the owners of the collection -- the Mansoors -- will not allow them to destroy what they regard as one of the most historically important archeological discoveries of this century.
Controversies in the art world are not new and many scholars have made some fateful mistakes -- one way or the other -- but only a few have ever had the courage to admit their mistakes. It is unfortunate that Mr. Young, after his initial inept examinat ion of the objects, did not have the courage to admit his mistake. In good faith, the Mansoors allowed Mr. Young to continue examining the objects even after Harvard's Professor Larsen conclusively demonstrated that Young had botched the elementary determ ination of whether the objects were composed of natural stone. However, rather than take that opportunity to set the record straight, Young chose to cloud it even further, to nurse his own ego, by declaring the collection a forgery even though he could of fer no scientific evidence to substantiate his claim. The result of Mr. Young's decision, and that of the Boston M.F.A., is this: the world has been robbed of a collection of extraordinary art that would add immeasurably to our knowledge of the Amarna per iod. By aiding Mr. Young in hiding the truth, those Egyptologists who have offered opinions without having seen the collection have revealed themselves as mere dilettantes--more interested in playing the role of Egyptologist than in genuinely studying the art and history of Ancient Egypt.
This was a brief history of the Mansoor Amarna Collection. For a more detailed history of the Collection, we refer the reader to The Scandal of the Century - The Mansoor Amarna Expose', by Christine Mansoor, Carlton Press, New York, NY (1 -800-266-5708).
For a deeper understanding of the importance of the Tel El Amarna period in the History of Ancient Egypt we refer the reader to: