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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Egypt Centre Collection Blog: A Tale of Five Geese

Monday, 13 April 2020

A Tale of Five Geese

One of the most beloved objects in the Egypt Centre collection is a small wooden goose, currently on display in the Animals case in the House of Death. W588 is a pale bluey-green goose, with black eyes and a dark red beak. The top of the tail appears to be a light reddish-orange colour, with two blue stripes running through it. The belly of the goose is white. It stands on a wooden plinth with white gesso covered legs and black painted toes (three on each foot). The top and bottom of the base remain unpainted while the sides are painted black (figs. 1 & 6). The possible remains of a dowel appear on top of the goose, which suggests that it was originally held by a servant figure.

Fig. 1: W588

Several Egyptologists who have visited the Egypt Centre in the past have suggested that W588 is a fake, mainly because of the modern-looking base. The object can be traced back to the collection of the Reverend William MacGregor, which was sold at auction in 1922. W588 was sold as part of lot 576, which was purchased for £5/15 by Harry Stow, Sir Henry Wellcome's chief agent (Hardwick 2012, 28). The object is described in the catalogue as "a painted carved wood figure of a goose, 3½ in. high by 7½ in. long, found at Arab-el-Birk, Middle Empire [Pl. XXXII]". The fact that it was illustrated in the plates (fig. 2) shows that the goose was regarded as one of the most important objects of MacGregor's vast collection of approximately 9,000 pieces (Hardwick 2011, 180). A small sticker on one of the long sides of the base has the printed number 535 in red. This is a well-known sticker type, which relates to MacGregor's own numbering system.

Fig. 2: W588, as shown in the MacGregor auction catalogue

The most important piece of information from the catalogue is that the object was found at "Arab-el-Birk". When catalogued at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1923 (number A15379), the provenance had morphed into "Arab al Berkh" (fig. 3). So where exactly is this site? I spent a considerable amount of time over the past few years trying to find it, as had the Egypt Centre curator. This included searching alternative spellings and asking Egyptian colleagues, all without success; it was turning into a wild goose chase! Several months ago, I searched the MacGregor catalogue and found that lot 819 contained an object "found at Arab-el-Birk, opposite Aboutig". This led me to Abu Tig (أبو تيج), the third largest city in the Asyut governorate. With the site of Aysut being well-known for its Middle Kingdom tombs, this certainly made sense based on the dating of the goose (Regulski & Golia).    

Fig. 3: Wellcome flimsy slip for W588

Several days ago, I was browsing through the auction catalogue of Henry Oppenheimer (1859–1932), a famous London collector, which was sold by Christie's between 10–14 July 1936 (Bierbrier 2019, 347). Lot 20 immediately caught my eye: "A wood model of a goose. 3 in. high (80 mm.); 9¼ in. long (235 mm.). VIth Dynasty. The body painted a pale green, the eyes, mouth and feet black. Found at Assiout in a VIth-Dynasty tomb with four others by Professor Maspero in 1884, and presented by him to Dr. W. L. Nash. Two of the others went to the Gizeh Museum, one was bought by Professor Flinders Petrie and the fourth was given away by Professor Maspero." An annotation in the margins of the catalogue notes that the lot was purchased for £22, which was a considerable sum for the day. Unfortunately, it doesn't state who purchased this lot. Upon searching the Petrie Museum online catalogue, I found several wooden geese, one (UC45821) of which shares many details with W588 (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: UC45821

UC45821 is a wooden model of a goose with red feathers, green beak, black eyes, and white belly. Like W588, it is attached to a rectangular wooden base, which is painted black on the sides only. The legs, including the rendering of the toes, appear to be the same as the Swansea goose (fig. 5). Unfortunately, the Petrie Museum catalogue provides no details on its provenance or acquisition.

Fig. 5: Comparison of W588 and UC45821

MacGregor is known to have visited Egypt in 1885, perhaps just a few months after the geese had been discovered by Gaston Maspero (1846–1816). In fact, in 1886 Maspero invited MacGregor onto his boat (the Tunisah) where Maspero was negotiating the acquisition of a mummy for MacGregor's collection (info via Bev Rogers). Maspero, Petrie, and MacGregor served together on the committee of the Burlington Fine Arts Club (BFAC) for many years (Pierson 2017, 111). Additionally, Walter Llewellyn Nash (1841–1920), who was mentioned receiving one of the geese in the Oppenheimer catalogue, was also a member of the BFAC, contributing objects to an exhibition on Egyptian art in 1895 (Bierbrier 2019, 338). Thus, it is clear that Maspero, Petrie, MacGregor, and Nash were all acquaintances and so it is certainly possible that Maspero passed on the geese to them. Questions remain, however. Are W588 and UC45821 two of the five geese found by Maspero in 1884? Where is the goose that was sold in 1936 as part of the Oppenheimer collection? Did Maspero add the bases to the figures before presenting them to friends? Moreover, whose tomb did Maspero discover the geese in? If any readers can shed some light on these questions, I would love to hear!

Fig. 6: W588

Bierbrier, M. L. (2019) Who was who in Egyptology. London: The Egypt Exploration Society. 5th edition.
Burlington Fine Arts Club (1895) Exhibition of the art of ancient Egypt. London: Burlington Fine Arts Club.
Hardwick, T. (2011) 'Five months before Tut: Purchasers and prices at the MacGregor sale, 1922'. Journal of the History of Collections 23, 1: 1–14.
Hardwick, T. (2012) 'The obsidian king's origins: Further light on purchasers and prices at the MacGregor sale, 1922'. Discussions in Egyptology 65: 7–52.
Houlihan, P. F. and S. M. Goodman (1986) The birds of ancient Egypt. Natural history of Egypt 1. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
Pierson, S. J. (2017) Private collecting, exhibitions, and the shaping of art history in London. The Burlington Fine Arts Club. Oxford: Routledge.
Regulski, I. and M. Golia eds. [n.d.] Asyut: Guardian city. London: The British Museum.
Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge (1922) Catalogue of the MacGregor collection of Egyptian antiquities. London: Davy.
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