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Thursday, July 4, 2024

How a 100-year-old photograph exposed the theft of ancient Egyptian child's coffin

How a 100-year-old photograph exposed the theft of ancient Egyptian child's coffin

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston used a rare picture taken by a pioneering British archaeologist in their detective work

The picture of the coffin that led to its theft being uncovered. Photo: Petrie Museum, UCL

While looking at the provenance documents for the 3,000-year-old Egyptian child's coffin in their collection, staff at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston began to realise things did not quite add up.

The paperwork contained a letter from a Swedish artist, who went into great detail about how he had excavated it in 1937, combined with apparent confirmation of its authenticity from a professor of Egyptology.

But an eagle-eyed curator at the museum had recently seen a photograph of a coffin that looked remarkably similar. That one was actually being dug out of the ground by a British archaeologist in 1920.

That clue set staff investigating the real background to the coffin.

The rare photograph was used for archaeological detective work that revealed the ancient artefact had been stolen from a museum in Sweden in 1970.

More than 100 years after the photograph was taken, the coffin has now been returned to the Gustavianum, the museum of the University of Uppsala.

Victoria Reed, who oversees provenance research at the MFA, explained to The National how her team uncovered the theft.

In the pre-internet era it was not unusual to ask sellers for signed statements and to provide recollections about how an object came into their possession.

But the long and extravagant back story about how the coffin made its way from Egypt to Sweden aroused suspicion, she said.

I think we always have to be careful when we get these fantastic stories of objects coming from unusual locations."
Victoria Reed

"We have had instances in the past where we have been given elaborate provenance stories for looted and stolen objects. I think we always have to be careful when we get these fantastic stories of objects coming from unusual locations."

The coffin had in fact been excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie, who has been referred to as the "father of Egyptian archaeology". He was also a pioneer in the use of photography in the field.

During a dig in Egypt in 1920 he excavated the 110cm tall clay coffin of a boy named Paneferneb and photographed the artefact, which dates back to 1295BC, as it lay in the ground.

The artefact ended up in Sweden and stayed there for decades. But in 1985, an agent based in California, claiming to represent Swedish artist Eric Stahl, sold it to the MFA. How exactly the coffin made its way from Sweden to California is unclear.

It would have remained there had it not been for an eagle-eyed curator in Egyptian art, who realised that the coffin was in fact the one in the 1920 photograph he had previously seen in a specialist book. He brought this to Ms Reed's attention in June 2023.

Ms Reed explained the rambling letter claiming to have been from Mr Stahl went into a "a lot of extraneous detail" about how he purportedly went to Egypt in 1937 on an expedition.

"The letter goes on and on and then all of a sudden on the last page he brings up the coffin, but he doesn't really describe finding a coffin," she said.

"He just talks about finding some shards and then at the very end he talks about 'the little coffin that I found myself'."

Also accompanying the coffin was a letter purporting to be from Per-Olow Anderson, who was a well-known photographer. On the document however, it was claimed he was a PhD in Egyptology and a Professor of Egyptology at Uppsala University, which was found to be untrue.

"He – or whoever signed his name – gives a statement attesting to the quality of the coffin and saying it had been found by Eric Stahl 30 years earlier," said Ms Reed.

"It says 'I've seen this object, it's charming, it's a nice object collection' kind of thing.

"His name was put into the statement to provide expertise, authenticity and to give the appearance of legitimacy. It's not clear to me whether he ever saw the coffin or whether he was involved in this to any extent whatsoever."

Ms Reed said it was by now clear to staff that the story should not be believed.

While Eric Stahl was indeed an artist, it was established there's no record of him ever taking part in an archaeological excavation in Egypt.

"We have the photographs, we have conflicting provenance, and we have the fact that all of our documentation came to us through a seller," said Ms Reed.

"Then you have these funny kind of assertions that can't be verified. So all of these things put together signalled likely problems."

Ms Reed contacted the museum at the University of Uppsala and a curator there began digging into their files.

"She was able to confirm that the coffin had been shipped to them in 1922, they had an inventory card for it. And that it had been missing since at least 1970."

Mikael Ahlund, director of Gustavianum, said it is "very gratifying" that artefact has been returned.

He said it "is an important item in our collections and it means a lot to the museum and the University that it has now been returned to us".

But Monica Hanna, associate professor and dean of the College of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, told The National the coffin should be returned to Egypt.

"This is an international crime and should be recovered to the Egyptian authorities immediately," Prof Hanna said

Photographing history

The photograph that shed light on the mystery is stored at the Petrie Museum, part of UCL university in London.

Anna Garnett, a curator at the museum and an archaeologist who works in Egypt and Sudan, said staff were "delighted" that the image was able to help in revealing the coffin had been stolen.

"I think this is such a fantastic example that shows the importance of archives, but also the importance of this kind of curatorial detective work," Dr Garnett told The National.

"It really highlights the layers of complexity when it comes to the distribution of objects that came from Egypt through Petrie's excavations."

Dr Garnett explained that Flinders Petrie was a pioneer in archaeological photography but having an image of such quality was "rare". The fact it has "survived until today is really incredible and a feat of determination by the UCL staff", she said.

"I think of people behind it and how long it must have taken to set up in what was probably 40 degree heat in Egypt," said Dr Garnett.

"It's hard enough in the field today in Egypt to get a decent light for photography, but to do it when they were carrying around big heavy cameras and glass plates, is really, really, impressive."

Museums have in recent years come under scrutiny, including from law enforcement and academics, over the extent to which their collections contain stolen artefacts.

For Ms Reed there was no question that the MFA would seek to hold on to an item that they found out was stolen, even if that was potentially embarrassing.

"I think museums certainly have a responsibility to address these historical losses," she said.

"We are public educational institutions, we should not be holding on to stolen art, we should not be displaying stolen art."

Updated: July 03, 2024, 2:02 PM
--   Sent from my Linux system.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

ARCE-NC Egyptology Lecture by Kara Cooney - Recycling for Death: Coffin Reuse in Ancient Egypt and the Theban Royal Caches

The American Research Center in Egypt, Northern California chapter, and the UC Berkeley Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures invite you to attend a Zoom lecture by Dr. Kara Cooney, UCLA:

Recycling for Death: Coffin Reuse in Ancient Egypt and the Theban Royal Caches
Sunday, August 18, 2024, 3 PM PDT

Zoom Lecture. This meeting will be recorded. A registration link has already been sent to ARCE-NC members. Non-members may request a registration link by sending email with your name and email address to Non-members, please send any registration requests no later than Friday, August 16. Registrations are limited to 100, so the sooner you register, the better.

About the Lecture:

In this lecture Kara Cooney will discuss her latest book, Recycling for Death, a meticulous study of the social, economic, and religious significance of coffin reuse during the Ramesside and early Third Intermediate periods. Funerary datasets are the chief source of social history in Egyptology, and the numerous tombs, coffins, Books of the Dead, and mummies of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Dynasties have not been fully utilized as social documents, mostly because the data of this time period are scattered and difficult to synthesize. This book is the culmination of fifteen years of coffin study, analyzing coffins and other funerary equipment of elites from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-second Dynasties to provide essential windows into social strategies and adaptations employed during the Bronze Age collapse and subsequent Iron Age reconsolidation.

About the Speaker:

Kara Cooney is a professor of Egyptology at UCLA and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Specializing in social history, gender studies, and economies in the ancient world, she received her Ph.D. in Egyptology from Johns Hopkins University. Her popular books include The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt, When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt, and The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World. Her latest books include Ancient Egyptian Society: Challenging Assumptions, Exploring Approaches (Routledge, 2023) and Recycling for Death: Coffin Reuse in Ancient Egypt and the Theban Royal Caches (The American University in Cairo Press, August 2024).

About ARCE-NC:

For more information, please visit,,,, and To join the chapter or renew your membership, please go to and select "Berkeley, CA" as your chapter when you sign up.