The Egyptian Department of the Louvre during the First World War I (1)

As announced in a previous post1, the meticulous annotations in Charles Boreux’s notebooks provide too good an opportunity to document the Department of Egyptian Antiquities’ experience of the turmoil of the First World War for me not to try to cross-reference them with other documents in order to assess their contribution2.

This episode in the history of the Louvre has received little attention, probably overshadowed by the massive evacuation of the collections during the Second World War, which is probably better documented3.

The Apollo Gallery (where the modern gold and silver collections are displayed) emptied and with its windows blocked, 1918 (Agence de presse Meurisse, Gallica).

Moreover, from the outset, accounts of the museum’s life in these troubled times have focused on the fate of the Fine Arts collections (especially the paintings), with little mention of the hazards faced by the antiquities. The notebook kept by Charles Boreux during part of the war4 allows us to learn more about the life of the department during this crisis.

Protecting collections in the emergency of war

Latest preventive measures

As the prospect of an armed conflict became clearer at the end of July 1914, the director of the national museums created a commission on 31 July “composed of curators, military personnel and firemen, to study the protective measures to be taken”5. At the same time, Boreux’s notebook indicates for this date that measures had been taken for personnel management, measures relayed by a circular from the director: “the Under-Secretary of State6 informs me that all current or future leaves are cancelled, for all personnel, as of today. Please inform urgently those of your colleagues who are absent.”

On the 1st of August, Boreux noted, “The mobilisation order having been signed today, the Director has urgently convened a Committee in which he has asked us to put in a particularly safe place the objects of our Department which we consider most important.” It was especially the spectre of bombing that motivated this decision, the execution of which was described a posteriori by Edmond Pottier, curator of oriental antiquities at the beginning of the conflict7. The next day, as the mobilisation order was announced in the country, Boreux specified the measures he had taken:

[Sunday, 2 August 1914] As a follow-up to the Committee of the 1st, and in execution of instructions from Mr Bénédite8 (LR n° 252)9, I have stored today in the storeroom of the Columns Hall:

the seated scribe – the statue of Akhunaten – the bust of Akhunaten – the Tyskewig (sic) statue – the 3 Posno bronzes – the statuettes of Toui and Tai

In addition, I have closed the shutters of the Charles X rooms (with the exception of the sculpture room, where the operation will require the removal of the blinds currently hanging on the windows).”

Monday 3 August 1914: “I had Damidot remove the blinds in the sculpture room that prevented the [full?] window shutters from being closed.

Had the Piaii statuette and the head of Amun E 4888 moved to the closet in the Columns Hall.

As we can see, the department sealed itself off and isolated the most precious transportable items in a small pre-existing storeroom in the thickness of the interior walls of the Columns Hall in the Pavillon des Arts.

Specially protected pieces

Boreux’s choice obviously focused on some of the most valuable pieces in the collection.

The seated scribe

(Louvre E 3023)

Image : Wikimedia Commons

“Statue of Akhunaten”

It is probably this statuette of Akhenaten (Louvre N 831, former Salt collection), the only one in the department that was particularly noteworthy at the time (the Curtis group was donated in 1938 only).

Image : Wikimedia Commons

“The bust of Akhunaten”

(Louvre E 11076)

This bust had been published by Bénédite eight years earlier10.

Image : Wikimedia Commons

“the Tyskewig (sic) statue”

(Louvre E 10777)

This statue came from the sale of the Tyszkiewicz collection and was purchased in 189811.

Image : Wikimedia Commons

“Tthe 3 Posno bronzes”: Horus

(Louvre E 7703)

The Posno sale took place in 1883; the Louvre acquired two bronze statuettes of men12. The third bronze (Horus, to the left) was acquired in 188413.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

“The statuette of Toui”

(Louvre E 10655)

Image : Wikimedia Commons

The statuettes “of Tai” (?)

(Louvre N 2312)

This attribution is not certain; today Tiy is prefered, but from Champollion14 to Pierret15, her name was transcribed continuously as “Taïa”.

Only the lower part was then in the museum.16

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

As we have seen, after this first selection, Boreux completed his choice with two other statuettes:

Statuette “of Piaii”

(Louvre E 124)

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

As for the “head of Amun E 4888”, I have not been able to identify it: the number E 4888 corresponds to a wooden Ptolemaic Osiris head17; among the heads of Amun in the department (in particular AF 2574, AF 13197 or E 11100), none of them seems, at first sight, to be more worthy than the others of being put in security.

The forgotten pieces?

It is not surprising that heavy and cumbersome pieces are excluded from this protective measure: they are difficult to move – at a time when the equipment, like the personnel spared by the mobilisation, is in demand on all sides – and often on the ground floor, protected by vaults that are thought to be sufficiently solid.

The absence of any mention of papyri, mummies, or musical instruments is however quite strange; all of them are not very bulky and very fragile. Even stranger is the absence of a few notable objects present in the rooms of the Charles X Museum and already occasionally highlighted in various publications.

The Gebel el-Arak Knife

This knife had been acquired in February 1914; indeed, it was to be published by Bénédite in 191618.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Groups of the royal scribe Nebmeroutef

(Louvre E 11153 et E 11154)

These groups had been acquired in 190819 and published by Bénédite in 191120.

Image : Wikimedia Commons

“Salt” head

(Louvre N 2289)

This head had been given the privilege of a plate in the 1895 department guide, along with the Seated Scribe, Touy and the Horus Posno21.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Karomama statuette

(Louvre N 500)

The statue of the divine adoratrice Karomama, in the collections since Champollion’s mission to Egypt, seemed at the end of the previous century to suffer from the proximity of the Posno bronzes22 and not to be so highly considered among the Louvre’s collection of bronzes despite the richness of its inlays. Perhaps this was still the case in 1914?

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

The choice of Boreux (and of Bénédite, who is undoubtedly at the origin of the instructions) unfortunately has no explicit motivation. It concerns outstanding pieces, no doubt, but remains restrictive.

What criteria may have led to the protection of one object rather than another?

The less subjective criterion of material fragility does not seem to have been the decisive one, since several stone statues, including the basalt Tyszkiewicz statue, were carried into the closet of the Columns Hall.

Nor does historical value seem to have been the only factor, since several pieces that had been published in previous years were ignored.

A final criterion that might have designated some objects rather than others would be their location in the rooms. This remains difficult to verify, since the last well-documented general state of the rooms before 1914 dates back to the new edition of Pierret’s Description sommaire (1895), which was already almost twenty years old; it therefore does not include acquisitions made in the meantime, and it is probable that several movements had taken place since the publication. The department also had new rooms: the Algiers gallery had been organised to be opened to the public in 1896 and a mastaba room had been fitted out in the Pavillon des Sessions23. The majority of the objects sheltered were in any case undoubtedly in the enfilade of the Charles X Museum (with the possible exception of the Seated Scribe, which could have been presented on the ground floor with the finds from the Serapeum and the Old Kingdom statuary.

It is certainly not impossible that the choices were guided by simple personal preferences. A final criterion could be that the objects protected first were those in isolated display cases, with the intention of emptying the cupboards later on without disturbing the classification of the collections (as indicated in the Bénédite report cited below), but this possibility cannot be fully verified for lack of sufficiently detailed evidence on the organisation of the rooms in 1914.

Declaration of war and start of evacuations

The third entry in Boreux’s notebook on Monday 3 August, probably added later in the day, records the news that was hardly surprising to this point: “Germany has today declared war on France”. He even underlines this last entry in blue pencil24.

Boreux’s notebook, 3 August 1914: Germany’s declaration of war (Archives nationales, 20144775/5, 3rd notebook).

If the museum’s unpreparedness is sometimes emphasised, as opposed to the emergency evacuation plan that was applied in 1939, the reaction to the threat was at least immediate25 and the reports of the people in charge of the collections prove that they were aware of the risks run by their collections in their current state as well as the dangers that an evacuation could represent.

During the first fortnight of August, in all the departments, the personnel who had not been mobilised tried to shelter everything that could be. Boreux thus noted in his notebook, on Friday 7 August, that a wooden box was being prepared for particularly precious objects to be stored in the safe of a M. [Galbrun?]; from Saturday 9 to Wednesday 12, the jewellery display case was emptied, and its duly inventoried contents were placed in this box. It was placed in the safe on Thursday 13 August.

The next day, Bénédite sent his fortnightly report, reproduced here in its entirety, to the director of the national museums:

Being in England in the last week of July I was unable to send you my penultimate report. My mission to London went well. Thanks to the help of Mr Robert Mond and Mr John Garstang I was able to obtain the two best pieces found in Meroe, apart from the large Meroitic stele reserved for the British Museum, which besides had participated for £300 instead of £100 like the Louvre.

I intended to go to Oxford to [crossed out word over which has been written “discuss”] with Mr LL. Griffith on various matters, but the news of European tension was such that I had to return suddenly. I learned on my arrival that a letter of recall was to be sent to me.

In the last fortnight of July, the marble workers, reduced to two, had been working intermittently on the reconstruction of the famous false door of Méri’s tomb, which can never be completed and which will remain a myth in the history of the Egyptian department. Since the declaration of war, the preservation measures I have adopted for the department and which are still being carried out are as follows:

1° Complete evacuation of the jewellery display case.

2° Removal of the rarest sculptures [before these first two paragraphs is written “operations completed”].

3° Removal of the capital items of all series, which can only be carried out at the reception of twenty-four drawers in double-compartment in which these items are distributed. The drawers will be stacked in the recesses in the thickness of the walls. The Charles X Museum has several of these. This work will probably certainly be completed by 20 August.

4° Closing of the shutters of the Charles X Museum, which are made of very thick woodwork and form a very good bulletproof barrier.

These measures are materially protective only against the impact of projectiles and the partial burning of the Louvre Palace. The total burning of the Museum, uncontrolled by the pumps, is an eventuality which, even if foreseen, would be without remedy.

In any case, the measures taken in my Department, i.e. the classification of objects to be saved in easily transportable drawers, would make it possible in the event of [aggravation?] to transfer them to the cellars in less than twenty minutes by handcart.

We are not yet at this debacle, and the provisional measures to be taken must be those which do not deteriorate the objects.

I consider that a number of handcarts and stretchers should be assembled in the Lefuel and Visconti courts ready for any eventuality.

Archives nationales, 20150044/36, report of Bénédite to the director of the national museums, 14 August 1914.

Benedite thus reveals that, despite the worries and material difficulties, he envisaged the department’s collections being sheltered in good order; only the jewels and “the rarest sculptures” were secured in the early days of the crisis, and as soon as he was able to preserve the classification of the collections, it would be the turn of the “capital pieces of all series”. The selection of these “capital pieces” and their distinction from the “rarest sculptures” is unfortunately still not explained, but it is clear that Benedict intended to remove many of the objects from their furniture and to ensure their classification (presumably to facilitate their control and to avoid any loss during the operation).

At the end of the month, consideration was given to evacuating part of the collections to the southwest, to Pau or Toulouse. On 24 August26, the curators were informed and ordered to organise the departure of part of the collections, despite their reservations, on 26 or 28 August27.

Following this decision, Boreux’s notebook indicates that the jewel case was removed from the safe on 2 September, with the intention of sending it to the Château de Pau (he crossed out and corrected “to Toulouse”). It shared a box (marked ML C 1528) with some objets d’art from the Apollo Galery; Jean-Joseph Marquet de Vasselot, curator of objets d’art, had drawn up a record of the operation29.

A month later, Boreux drew up an inventory in duplicate of the pieces deposited in this sealed cassette, dated 7 October30 :

The box was therefore placed in crate ML C 15, along with collections belonging to the current department of decorative arts, including five medieval tapestries, the helmet of Charles IX, ivories and the ciborium of Master Alpais. This box was loaded into a car no. 51. A report from the Director of National Museums to the Under-Secretary of State for Fine Arts, preserved in the same file and dated 13 October, mentions in turn that one of the six carriages sent to the railways contained the The Coronation of Napoleon, rolled up and crated, the tapestries from Reims cathedral, two crates of objets d’art (including the Virgin of Joan of Evreux, the insignia of the coronation of the kings of France, …) and the cassette of Egyptian jewellery.

This precious cargo was then stored in the nave of the church of the Jacobins convent in Toulouse, under the custody of a curator and the military administration.

The daily passwords needed by the curator assigned to the evacuated collections to get past the sentries ( Archives nationales, 20150044/31 )

Edmond Pottier’s account31 evokes the life of this strange improvised depository. Our Egyptian jewels probably did not have to undergo too much handling there, in their sealed case, unlike the objects made of organic materials whose sanitary condition was inspected. In August-September 1915, however, the collections were redistributed in the six padded cars that housed them in the nave, and crate ML C 15 was set in car 153, with, among other neighbours, du Alienor’s vase, Suger’s eagle, Charlemagne’s sword, the Sainte-Chapelle Virgin, but also The Madonna of the Rabbit, Vermeer’s The Lacemaker , and Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint John the Baptist et la Mona Lisa. In a final inspection, its contents were re-examined in September 1918 and reloaded on 10 October 191832

The six padded wagons containing the evacuated collections under guard in the Jacobin convent in Toulouse in 1914 (Archives nationales, 20150044/31 )

This exceptional manoeuvre, with its complex logistics, hardly affected the Egyptian department in the end, despite the importance of the jewels that were sent to Toulouse. I reserve for a future post the daily life of the museum during the war…


This post was translated into English from the French original “Le département égyptien du Louvre pendant la Première Guerre mondiale (1)“, 16 November 2021.

  1. The Daily life of the Louvre in the 1900s”, 3 March 2019. []
  2. The impromptu discovery of the department’s fortnightly reports to the director (Archives nationales, 20150044/35-37) has added a new mass of documents to be examined and leads me to reserve the description of the daily life of the department for the duration of the war for another post which will complete this one. []
  3. And with good reason, as the hesitations of the administration during the Great War partly motivated the subsequent planning of the emergency evacuation procedures that were implemented in 1939. []
  4. Archives nationales, 20144775/5, 4th diary, which I briefly described in the above-mentioned post. []
  5. Barbier, Muriel et al. , “Le Louvre durant la Première Guerre mondiale”, in Lintz, Yannick and Bresc-Bautier, Geneviève (eds.), Histoire du Louvre, t. 2, Paris, Louvre, 2016, p. 365-366. []
  6. Dalimier, Under-Secretary of State for Public Instruction and Fine Arts, in charge of Fine Arts. []
  7. Pottier, Edmond, Le musée du Louvre pendant la guerre 1914-1918, 1919, p. 4 []
  8. Curator of the department, Bénédite had been in the United Kingdom the previous month; his mid-August report, quoted below, seems to indicate that he had just returned at the outbreak of war – if not still on his way. []
  9. Reference to the museum-wide mail registration number, for “Louvre reçu,” (“Louvre received”) according to a system introduced in 1912; I am not aware of any record nor minute of this correspondence that has been preserved. []
  10. Bénédite, Georges, “À propos d’un buste égyptien récemment acquis par le musée du Louvre”, Monuments et mémoire de la fondation Eugène Piot 13, 1906, p. 5-26. []
  11. Archives nationales, 20144775/9. []
  12. Lots 468 and 524 (Archives nationales, 20144775/9), now registered in the Louvre under the numbers E 7692 and E 7693, which illustrated pl. 11 and 16 from the new edition of Pierret’s Description sommaire des salles du musée égyptien of 1895. []
  13. Archives nationales, 20144775/9. []
  14. Champollion le Jeune, Jean-François, Notice descriptive des monuments égyptiens du musée Charles X, Paris, 1827, p. 58 (sous le n° D 39). []
  15. Pierret, Paul, Description sommaire des salles du musée égyptien, new edition, Paris, 1895, p. 75-76. []
  16. The upper part was acquired by the Société des amis du Louvre in 1962. []
  17. Thanks to the kindness of Mr Christophe Barbotin for this clarification. []
  18. Bénédite, Georges, “Le couteau de Gebel el-ʿArak. Étude sur un nouvel objet préhistorique acquis par le musée du Louvre”, Monuments et mémoires de la fondation Eugène Piot 22, 1916, p. 1-34. []
  19. See “The Daily Life of the Louvre in the 1900s“, 3 March 2019. []
  20. Bénédite, Georges, “Scribe et babouin. Au sujet de deux groupes de sculpture égyptienne exposés au musée du Louvre”, Monuments et mémoires de la fondation Eugène Piot 19, 1911, p. 10-42. []
  21. Pierret, Paul, op. cit., ; respectively pl. [12], [13], [14] and [15]. []
  22. Chassinat, Émile, “Une statuette de bronze de la reine Karomama (XXIIe dynastie). Musée du Louvre”, Monuments et mémoires de la fondation Eugène Piot 4-1, 1897 , p. 15-26 (see p. 18 []
  23. Lintz, Yannick and Bresc-Bautier, Geneviève (eds.), Histoire du Louvre, Paris, 2016, t. 2, “Un musée pour la République (1871-1918)”, p. 291-273; t. 3, “Le département des antiquités égyptiennes”, p. 80-84. []
  24. It was probably five years later that Boreux underlined this entry, when he had just reported the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and noted a cross-reference to the date of the declaration of war; this cross-reference to the page of 28 June 1919 was matched by one to that of 3 August 1914. []
  25. At the Guimet Museum, for example, which had been public since 1885, but only joined the national museums in 1927, the collections were not sheltered until the end of August, in the face of the threat of bombing (archives kept in the library of the Guimet Museum, “Guimet, Émile”, letter from the director Émile Guimet to Alexandre Moret dated 31 August 1914: “The aeroplanes are throwing bombs into Paris. I would like to put some objects in safety”. []
  26. Barbier, Muriel et al., loc. cit.; Pottier, Edmond, op. cit., p. 5. gives 25 August as the date, but this cannot be correct, since the curators’ committee formalised its opposition to the project at the meeting of 24 August (Archives nationales, 20150157/38 with digitised minutes). []
  27. The 26th is given by Barbier, Muriel et al. , loc. cit.; the 28th by Pottier, Edmond, op. cit., p. 5. and Maingon, Claire, Le musée invisible. Le Louvre et la Grande Guerre, Paris, 2016, p. 48 []
  28. “Musée du Louvre, caisse 15” no doubt. []
  29. Benedite similarly reports, in his report of 28 September (Archives nationales, 20150044/36), that the case was handed over on 2 September to Migeon, curator of the objets d’art department, “to be attached to the shipment from this department to Toulouse.” []
  30. Archives nationales, 20150044/30, 1st part, file « Envoi de 1914 » []
  31. Pottier, Edmond, op. cit. []
  32. Archives nationales, 20150044/30, pochette (1), dossier “Condition of cars and crates”. []

Thomas Lebée

Chargé de travaux dirigés (École du Louvre) ; documentaliste scientifique au département des antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines (musée du Louvre)

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