Gail Howard's Egypt Travel Adventures Story Continued
One day, Godowski and I bought some items at another shop at cheap prices and brought them to Mr. Nassar for his opinion. He looked at all our purchases and sorted the genuine from the imitation. The genuine pieces were mine, and the imitations were Godowski’s.
Nassar’s expert opinion convinced me that my daily hours of study in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities were paying off. I had bought painted flat pieces of wood from sarcophagi from the 26th dynasty, a time of artistic decline, so they were not fine pieces. But they were genuine. Nassar gave me a finer piece as a gift in one of his more expansive moods – a day that Godowski bought $300 worth of coins from him.
One day, I was sitting alone in a shop in the bazaar selecting ancient coins to add to my growing collection of Greco Roman coins. A Lebanese man entered and asked the owner if he had any special coins for him, then turned to me and asked if I were an avid coin collector. He fingered the coins I had set aside and said, “Ah, the Ptolemys.”
Later I learned that Robert Hosni was one of the five leading authorities on Greco-Roman coins in Egypt. Over lunch, Robert told me that he had studied Italian and ancient Greek because of his interest ancient coins. The most famous volumes about these coins were written by Dattari in the 19th century. Robert learned Italian just to be able to read the Dattari books. I was curious to learn more about this mysterious Dattari, and how he became such an authority on ancient coins.
Robert told me that in the 1800's, Dattari had sailed up and down the Nile. Egyptians brought ancient coins to Dattari when he was in port, selling them to him for about a dollar a sack, or pennies per kilo. Over the years, Dattari amassed quite a collection. He studied the coins, classified them and published books about them. Those books were more detailed and complete than older volumes in the British Museum. The Dattari books had long been out of print and were extremely valuable.
Over the next few days Robert classified all my coins in small square envelopes, on which he wrote the period, the emperor and explained the image on the reverse side and wrote the catalog number of the coin.
One day Robert Hosni had a special treat for me. He introduced me to Henri Shiha, Egypt’s leading authority on ancient coins and antiquities. An old man who had never married, Henri Shiha devoted his life to antiquities. Three walls in Henri Shiha’s house were covered with books on the subject. They were mostly huge old volumes long out of print, published by museums in various countries.
Henri Shiha was often called upon by museums and collectors for his opinion. Writers asked to photograph objects from his collection as fine museum quality examples for their books. But Henri was a shy recluse who liked to putter around his house alone except when he was with one or two of his four friends.
The first time Robert had asked if he could bring me to his house to meet him, Henri had said “No,” but finally relented when Robert persuaded him to let me visit for a mere 15 minutes. Those minutes stretched into several hours. Henri brought out boxes of any specimen I would mention. His collection rivaled the Egyptian Museum. I was thrilled to be able to hold such fine specimens in my hands and turn them around and see them from every angle.
Along with seeing these beautiful objects, I received lessons in ancient Egyptian history. If I showed an interest in a certain queen, for instance, Henri would bring out a coin with her face on it, relate a story about her – then give me the coin.
That day was like Christmas for me. Henri kept giving me objects from his collection. Finally I said, “You have been overly generous, but I cannot accept any more of your treasures.”
Henri kindly explained, “I am an old man. I don’t know what will become of my collection after I die. It is a pleasure for me to give them to someone who has such enthusiasm and appreciation for them.”
Robert and I set another date to return to Henri's house so I could get his opinion of the objects I had previously bought.
While in Luxor, I had bought a 7,000 year-old vase in perfect condition, which Henri Shiha said was a "very nice" piece. The wooden funereal concubine I had bought from Nassar which I considered to be my best and favorite piece, Henri said was "good."
Although many of the pieces I had bought were both ancient and authentic, Henri considered them junk. For every bad piece I had, he insisted on giving me a fine piece from his collection. It was another Christmas Day, even more so than the first meeting.
From Nassar I had bought a wooden face of a woman, a concubine that was cut from a sarcophagus. It looked new but was ancient. To me it was really a beautiful piece. I paid $600 for it. Henri estimated the price I paid at $150, but said I should be able to sell the concubine in the States for at least $5,000.
Henri hadn't purchased antiquities for seven years. So when he estimated the prices I paid for my objects, it was always lower than what I had paid. That did not discourage me because I attributed it to the possibility that he was out of touch with present day prices. Maybe he didn't realize the value of the items he had given me – but then most likely he did.
I regretted not being able to show him one huge piece I had bought -- the top half of a figure from a sarcophagus -- because it had been smuggled out of Egypt for me to Beirut in a diplomatic suitcase of a friend.
My wooden Isis (bird) from Luxor puzzled Henri. He had never seen a beak end in that form. Days before, I had shown my wooden Isis to Nassar, who studied it with a jewelers loop (a high-powered magnifying glass) for about 30 minutes before he gave me his opinion. It was definitely old, but an attempt had been made to retouch it. He asked how much I had paid for it. When I told him, Nassar shook his head sadly and said, “They must be hungry in Luxor.” That meant I got a good deal.
A ‘Shawabti’ is a funerary statuette that was buried with nobles and kings to serve them in the afterworld. I had bought two wooden shawabtis in Luxor that Nassar thought possibly were not genuine. But, he said, if they were fakes, they were such good fakes that he could not tell me definitely whether they were genuine or fake. Henri didn't like those two objects either, but when I asked him if I should throw them away he said no, because he was not that sure.
I took the two shawabtis to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and showed them to one of the authorities there. The expert read the hieroglyphics on the shawabtis. He said something was missing in one of the symbols – not rubbed off, but as if someone just forgot to write it. After further investigation, he found that another symbol was written incorrectly.
“So they are imitation then?" I asked.