One might not expect to find ancient Egyptian relics in the Hamilton Movie Theater. But for one Colgate professor, this was exactly the case.
“I was teaching a class in medieval art this semester, and I wanted to see if there was anything in the Picker collection that would be helpful to my teaching,” Assistant Professor of Art & Art History Elizabeth Marlowe explained. “I’d used objects in the museum before, but I wasn’t very optimistic when I went to go look because I had always been told that there was nothing there that was older than the Renaissance and even that there isn’t very much. It’s a collection that is strong primarily in 19th and 20th century objects.”
But to Marlowe’s surprise, such objects did in fact exist.
“Last May I went to the database in the Picker and I was just playing around with the dates in the search parameters,” Marlowe said. “I put in very broad dates; I think I said something like show me everything from the year zero to the year 1400. And sure enough, there was very little medieval art that came up, just a couple of loose manuscript pages. But then all of these late antique Egyptian relief sculptures starting coming up, 20 of them, and I was completely amazed. I had no idea that there was anything like that in the collection.”
Marlowe explained how the University’s relics wound up in the movie theater.
“It turns out that the Picker art museum has been using a kind of room behind the Hamilton Movie Theater as a storage facility for its excess material over the years,” she said. “Once in a while sometimes things that should have been housed somewhere else ended up being stored there. I think the idea was to only keep them there temporarily.”
Marlowe, along with the Associate Professor of Art & Art History museum director Linn Underhill, went down to the theater to find the 20 Egyptian late antique relief sculptures wrapped up in storage.
“It was kind of like an Indiana Jones moment, discovering these very important things in a place where you’re really not expecting them,” Marlowe said.
We were very excited by this discovery and the importance of these objects was really quite obvious, so we got them out of that storage space and brought them up into the Picker gallery and immediately had them assessed in terms of the state of their preservation and to try to figure out what kind of conservation work needed to be done.”
Marlowe called on a fellow Colgate colleague, Chemistry Laboratory Instructor Patricia Jue, to have a look at the reliefs.
“She’s done a lot of work on art and chemistry,” Marlowe explained, “so it was really right up her alley to do the petro-graphic chemical analysis of them to figure out what kind of stone it was.”
Marlowe shared her concerns about the validity of the objects she’d found.
“One of the first questions we had to worry about, something that is a real problem in my field, is the question of whether or not they were forgeries,” she said. “There’s a huge amount of fake stuff out there. But Patricia’s chemical analysis, as well as the style of the reliefs, made me feel at least that they weren’t obvious forgeries and made me feel confident enough to show photographs of them to some actual experts in the field.”
While Marlowe is an ancient art historian, she explained that she doesn’t specialize in late antique Egyptian sculpture. But fortunately, she happened to know someone who did have that as an area of expertise in New York City. Marlowe decided to bring the reliefs to her friend over the summer.
“She was very excited by it, immediately looked at them and said, ‘These aren’t forgeries – these are from a site called Oxyrinka,’ which she had worked on extensively,” Marlowe said. “She thinks they were probably made in the 4th or 5th century.”
Marlowe learned a bit about how the reliefs came to be in Colgate’s possession.
“They were given to Colgate in the 1960s as part of the Mayer bequest,” she said. “Herbert Mayer is a Colgate alumnus who had an art gallery down in New York City and was very plugged in to the cutting-edge New York art scene in the 1960s and showed many of the leading artists at that time in his gallery. When he died, a lot of his excess holdings ended up coming into the Colgate collection and there were so many of them that I think the museum was a bit overwhelmed at the time. It’s only now that some of the richness of that bequest is really being explored.”
What the University plans to do with the relics going forward is yet to be fully determined.
“The immediate decision was to not do a show right away, but to first just start exploring these objects and to bring students into that process as much as possible,” Marlowe said. “The first thing we’re doing with them is I’m going to teach this seminar in the spring. The idea is to kind of explore the reliefs from all the different historical questions that they touch upon. Some students in the seminar will be thinking about how we can try to create a historical context for these objects about which we actually have no information. All we know is that this New York guy bought them in Cairo in 1960 but at the time that he bought them the dealer in Cairo didn’t have any information about where they came from – they could be anything.”
In order to fully explore these relics, Marlowe plans on including students in their study as much as possible.
“There will be some students who will do things like looking at lots of other work of late antique Egyptian sculpture and trying to figure out what things to be looking for, what the style looks like,” she explained. “I’m hoping to have some students do very careful measurements of the reliefs to try to figure out if some of them came from one building or are these reliefs from a number of different structures that have all been put together in a group just to make it saleable. It’s quite possible that eight of them are from one building and four of them are from somewhere else.”
She also shared that she would want some of her students to learn more about Mayer and his background.
“I’d like a group of students to research Mayer and why it is that this New York gallery owner who was showing works by 1960s New York artists was interested in ancient Egyptian reliefs,” she said.
She would also like students to delve deeper into how these artifacts can be proven real.
“I want other students to be thinking about how we know these aren’t forgeries, what is an art forgery, how are they created, how do we go about detecting forgeries if they are forgeries,” Marlowe explained. “Are they worthless? Should we throw them away or are there other stories to tell?”
Another side to this discovery is the possibility of a property issue.
“There’s also potentially a cultural property aspect of it,” Marlowe said. “Do we need to ask Egypt if they want these back? Was the transaction totally legal? So there are many different dimensions that I want this seminar to explore.”
Marlowe shared what she hoped the end result of all this research would be.
“I’m hoping what we’ll be able to show by the end of the semester is a really well thought-out website that presents a lot of this information as well as really good photographs to the public,” Marlowe said. “From there, I think we could start planning an actual exhibit of the objects.”
Contact Amanda Golden at [email protected]