Black basalt bust 

Maker unknown
Modern, around 1910 - 1930

In the style of an Egyptian bust of the mid-18th dynasty

Our choice for Object of the Month for May is an unusual one. Believed to be a highly valuable and important ‘bust of a king’ by its last owner Denys Eyre Bower, it is actually an early 20th-century forgery. Today however it is a key part of Denys’ Egyptian collection and an interesting example of what was available at auction when he was collecting. It is an impressive black basalt bust made to resemble an ancient Egyptian high official, wearing a nemes headdress with the traditional uraeus snake symbol on the forehead. It is on display on the mantlepiece in the Egyptian Room at the Castle. 

There are errors in the shape of the face and features of the headdress that give this statue away as modern. Studying the material an object is made from can often tell us whether it is genuine. Certain materials are clearly not ancient because they were not available in Egypt at that time. The use of stone such as basalt that would have been available, however, makes spotting forgeries like this statue more difficult. It is the strange shape of the uraeus (snake symbol) on the crown of this statue, as well as the slightly odd proportions of its face, which give it away. 

One of the key ways in which ancient Egyptian statues are identified and assigned a date is through their facial features. Egyptologists learn to recognise the subtle differences in the features of royal figures, and the style in which faces were carved during different dynasties. Experts who have studied many examples of statues can therefore spot when something doesn’t look quite right. An example of a very similar but genuine 18th-dynasty statue fragment is this head of either Queen Hatshepsut or Tuthmosis III at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Head of Queen Hatshepsut or Tuthmosis III, Dynasty 18, graywacke, The Cleveland Museum of Art, object number 1917.976

Spotting forgeries has always been an important skill for collectors and dealers. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter sparked an even bigger interest in ancient Egypt in the West. Newspapers published stories on the excavation and the amazing treasures found. Images and designs inspired by Egypt were used in the arts, fashion, architecture, and even advertising. The demand was much higher than the number of genuine artefacts available for sale on the antiquities market. This is why many high-quality forgeries of ancient Egyptian objects were made to sell for high prices to profit from their popularity.

Advert for ‘Egyptian Deities’ cigarette with a model wearing Egyptian-inspired clothing and jewellery, early 20th century. 

Even today museums are finding that important objects in their collections are turning out to be forgeries. In 2003 a statue of an ‘Amarna Princess’ was bought at Christie’s and authenticated by the British Museum as 3,300 years old. It had in fact been made by a resident of Bolton in his shed.

The ‘Amarna Princess’ forgery, CC BY-SA 4.0

Denys spent a lot of time reading, researching, and writing to experts about Egyptian art in order to ensure that he collected authentic and significant artefacts. This bust and a few other objects in the collection however did unfortunately fool him. The bust was one of Denys’ most prized possessions. It can be seen below in an old archive photo, with his hand-written label underneath. You can now visit us and see what you think of this suspicious statue in comparison to the genuine ancient artefacts on display. 

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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