The Lure of Ancient Egypt: Formation of the Egyptian Collection

Submitted by Leslie Cade on

Discoveries of Egyptian antiquities fueled interest in Europe and America as early as the 18th century. The splendor and romance of the Nile Valley washed over the arts and fashion of the western world encouraging expeditions and excavations.  By 1910 everybody who was anybody had traveled to Egypt and American museums began collecting Egyptian art.

Although the Cleveland Museum of Art wasn’t yet open, the institution’s primary funder, the Huntington Trust, charged into the fray, allocating $25,000 for Egyptian art. The trustees asked Henry Kent of the Metropolitan Museum to assist in the endeavor. Kent introduced them to Lucy Olcott Perkins. A former Met employee, Lucy had studied and traveled with amateur archeologist Theodore Davis. She parlayed this training into a short career as Egyptian agent for both Cleveland and the Brooklyn Museum. Armed with an initial $10,000 she purchased enough works to fill 24 crates. Lucy’s career was cut short and some of the museum’s money disappeared when she succumbed to mental illness, dying in the New York State Hospital on Ward’s Island in 1922.

 

Lucy’s purchases for the museum were unpacked by director Frederic Whiting who quickly realized that the museum needed an Egyptologist to sort and identify the treasures in time for the museum’s opening in June of 1916. He planned to have at least one gallery devoted to Egyptian art. Caroline Ransom Williams, America’s first professionally trained woman Egyptologist, was hired for the task.

 

Wanting to further develop the collection, Whiting continued to correspond with Henry Kent for advice and a new agent. Kent recommended Howard Carter, the most experienced and clever trader in Egypt, and in 1917 Carter began serving as our agent while at the same time also making purchases for the Metropolitan. Unfortunately for Cleveland, when a conflict of interest arose, the Metropolitan won. Whiting caught on that we were being duped by both Carter and the Met and in spite of dwindling resources tried unsuccessfully to get funding for an excavation of our own. Carter attempted meager amends in 1921 by suggesting that certain pieces from the Canarvon excavations might be available. Nothing came of this offer. Carter’s last effort as our agent at the auction of a well-known private collection of Egyptian antiquities also failed. In spite of the renewed frenzy over Egyptian art with the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, Whiting lost all interest and no more Egyptian art was purchased during his tenure as director.