“You shall not have my head!” An exchange between the Louvre and the Musée Guimet

A letter with a singular tone found in the archives gives us an opportunity to follow back the misadventures of a statue representing the goddess Isis nursing her son Horus and inscribed in the name of the divine worshipper Chepenupet II. This statue is now kept in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities of the Louvre Museum under the inventory numbers E 7826 (body) and E 20371 (bust).1

Statue of Isis nursing Horus
Isis nursing Horus
25th dynasty, Medinet Habu (excavations of John B. Greene, 1855); granit; h. 1,46 m;
Louvre E 7826 & E 20371 (image: Wikimedia Commons)

An innocent proposal?

This story began on September 13th of 1897, with a note written by a certain Arrondelle to the curator of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre: he pointed out a head from the Musée Guimet, complementary to a body from the Louvre2. His letter even includes a sketch, with the identification of the work to Queen “Shap-en-ap”3. The princess’s name on the lower part of the statue had indeed made it attributed to Shepenupet4.

Of course this letter encouraged the curator, Georges Bénédite, to investigate further; he therefore sent a letter to the Musée Guimet on June 27th:

Dear Sir,

Having been yesterday to the Musée Guimet to visit the exhibition of objects from the Antinoupolis excavations, I had the opportunity to learn from Mr de Milloué5 that the granite bust of Queen Shapenap which is part of your Egyptian collection was acquired by you from a curiosity dealer in the Rue de Seine. As this bust comes from a shipment made to the Louvre Museum in 18826 by Mr Lequeux, French consul in Cairo, and completes a torso deposited in one of our storerooms, we would be infinitely grateful if you would kindly let us know by a small note the name of the merchant in question. We could thus be informed of some of the elements that are indispensable to the investigation that we have the duty to make about this monument. I would have been very interested in discussing this and other matters with you; but, having learned that you were leaving Paris today, I had to decide to write to you.

Please accept, dear Sir, the assurance of my highest consideration.

Letter from Bénédite to Guimet, 27 June 1898, Musée Guimet Library, 1898 correspondence (box 21).

Émile Guimet’s reply gives the whole affair its spice; it is the detail that drew my attention to this exchange:

Dear Sir,

You shall not have my head! … I absolutely refuse to go down the road of ‘revelations’. And then, seriously, I think you are mistaken. The bust of Queen Shap-en-ap was in my private collection long before 1882, and could not have been sent to the Louvre at the same time as the torso. Please accept, dear Sir, my very best wishes.

Letter from Guimet to Bénédite, 1 July 1898, Archives nationales, 20144775/67.

How did we get here?

In the years that followed, Bénédite did not forget the headless beauty; he referred to it in the conclusion of an article that he published in 1900:

In the course of this article, I had to mention the statue of Shapenuapit II discovered by Greene at Medinet Habu. This statue, later transported to Luxor in the Maison de France, a small construction demolished with the other parasitic buildings that cluttered the temple, entered the Louvre in 1884, along with a batch of large monuments sent, on the advice of Mr Maspero, to our museum, by Mr Lequeux, then French consul in Cairo. Most of these monuments were able to find a place in our galleries at the time of the reorganisation of the collections on the ground floor8. The sad state of the statue of Shapenuapit, deprived of its bust, prevented me from taking advantage of it. With no other indication of the state in which it had reached the Louvre than pl. VIII of Greene’s publication9 I thought it was irrevocably ruined, when the head of the casting workshops called my attention to the cast of a queen’s head, the original of which was exhibited in the Musée Guimet and which had seemed to him to be of the same size as the torso in the Louvre; we superimposed the plaster bust on the granite body and we could then see that the two fragments complemented each other in the most obvious way, the breaks answering each other exactly and the inscription started on the back of the head continuing normally on the back of the statue. I informed Mr de Milloué, curator of the Musée Guimet, of this finding and he told me that the bust in question had been acquired in Paris. For a long time I thought that it had been stolen from the Louvre in one of our storerooms where too many people had access; but, according to new information that Mr Guimet was kind enough to give me, it would have been acquired before 1876 and would therefore have been transported to Paris nearly ten years before the rest of the body. The mutilation of this monument, which had its time of fame in science, is a great pity. It is truly unfortunate that the only great statue of an Egyptian queen in the Paris collections has its head in the Musée Guimet and its feet in the Louvre. I could only protest against this anomaly; I now have reason to hope that it will not have been in vain.

Bénédite, Georges, “Sur un étui de tablette trouvé à Thèbes”, Monuments et mémoire de la fondation Eugène Piot 7, 1900, p. 105-119, p. 118119.
Detail from Greene's pl. VIII: the lower part of our statue
Detail from Greene’s pl. VIII: the lower part of our statue

This account modifies somewhat the incident as it appeared from the letter exchange of 1898: it allows to recognise in the sender of the initial letter Eugène Arrondelle, head of the Louvre moulders between 1886 and 190710.

It so happens that in September 1896, a year before Arrondelle’s note, the Musée Guimet had a “bust of an Egyptian queen” cast11 in which it seems reasonable to recognise our Isis, a print of which was also sent before February 1901 to Jean Capart, then assistant curator at the Royal Museum in Brussels.12 Another seems to have passed into the hands of Arrondelle, who would have proceeded with Bénédite to a test with the stone body to ensure the complementarity of the two before addressing Guimet.

New documents for the file could therefore be found in the casting workshop’s collection and in the Guimet Museum’s correspondence between 1896 and the end of the affair in 1906. It should be noted that Bénédite kept a very diplomatic silence on the rejection he received from Guimet, with whom he was apparently negotiating at the time.

Portrait d'Émile Guimet
Portrait of Guimet
Ferdinand Jean Luigini, 1898, musée des Confluences (Lyon) 2007.0.653 (picture: Wikimedia Commons)

I have not determined what prompted Guimet to have this head cast in September 1896. The museum was probably interested in the statue at that time, as its entry in the room guide was expanded somewhat.

Exhibited in the fourth room of the Boissière gallery, on the second floor, it was simply described as a “brown granite bust of a Saite princess, wearing the uraeus”13 until 1897, when it was given its name again: “brown granite bust of Queen Shap-en-ap, wife of Psammétik Ist”14. In 1904, a final addition provided a further clarification: “bust, in brown granite marbled with white, of Queen Shap-en-hap, daughter of Piankhi and wife of Psammétik I, to whom she brought the right to legally found the 26th dynasty;”15, without it being possible to determine whether these data come from Pierret’s guide to the Louvre (as can be assumed in the case of Arrondelle’s note), from Bénédite’s article or from another specific publication.

Eight years later…

In 1906, Guimet’s tone had changed and he was willing to give the bust to the Louvre in exchange for objects for his museum: while his Egyptian collections had been considerably enriched thanks to the support he had given to Gayet’s excavations at Antinoupolis or Amélineau and Weill’s at Abydos, he perhaps no longer placed as high a value on his beloved head, especially since he also seemed interested in other collections. He wrote to Antoine Héron de Villefosse, curator of Greco-Roman antiquities at the Louvre:

Dear Sir,

You have kindly given me the hope that you will choose some objects to give to the Musée Guimet in exchange for the bust of Queen Shap-en-hap that I wish to give to the Louvre.

I will have the pleasure of visiting you next week and I would be grateful if you would [set aside] any documents that you could offer me.

Letter from Guimet to Héron de Villefosse, 25 April 1906, Archives nationales, 20144775/6.

Three days later, the assistant curator of Egyptian antiquities, Pierret, sent this letter to his curator, Bénédite, reporting on the progress of the case and asking for his instructions, stating that the director demanded a “rapid solution to this matter which concerns us”.16

For his part, the director wrote to Gaston Migeon, curator of objets d’art, to ask him for the inventory number of a Japanese statue that the Louvre agreed to “cede” to Guimet17 “to facilitate the return to the Museum of the head of the Egyptian Lady that it possesses and which completes a torso in our collection.”18

Negotiations then proceeded apace; Guimet was shopping:

Dear Sir,

Thank you for your letter.

We have an agreement about the lion’s head.

I will visit you in the first days of June and we will finish.

Please accept, dear Sir, my best wishes.

Letter from Guimet to Bénédite, 21 May 1906, Archives nationales, 20144775/6.

And a few weeks later, again with an inimitable sense of formula:

Dear Sir,

I went to the Louvre and you weren’t there. I suggest you replace the cat’s head with a Nefer Hotep, with curly hair and pschent.

But I do have other appetites.

Mr Gayet told me that the Excavations Society had assigned the stuccoed and painted canvases I had requested to the Louvre Museum because of the large quantity of isiac symbols that cover them.

You told me that you don’t have them.

But maybe it’s like Apollo Eupsuki; you don’t know your wealth.

If you find them, that’s what I need

And I would ask you to send me a list of the items exchanged so that I can write to the Minister.

Please accept, dear Sir, my best wishes.

Letter from Guimet to Bénédite, 13 June 1906, Archives nationales, 20144775/6.

The exchange was finally concluded in July 1906. On the 16th, Guimet sent a definitive list of twenty-eight objects to the director of the national museums, who forwarded it to the curators of the departments concerned (Egyptian antiquities, Greco-Roman antiquities and objets d’art), noting in the margin “Mr Guimet seems to me to be putting a high price on the head of Shap-en-Hap.”19 … The Egyptian objects concerned were:

  • the naophoros statue E 4299;
  • Isis nursing Horus N 3966;
  • a bronze cat head without number;
  • the bronze Hathor E 4427;
  • the bronze Isis-Hathor E 4419;
  • the bronze Montu N 3732 (described by Guimet as Hor-Amun), from Clot-Bey collection;
  • the bronze Neferhotep N 3979;
  • a mummy;
  • a stuccoed canvas of Apollo “Eupsuki”, from Antinoupolis.20

The rest of the story is mainly a succession of exchanges within the Fine Arts bureaucracy: at the end of July, the list was proposed by the director of the national museums to his hierarchy21. A month later, the Director of Higher Education (on which the Musée Guimet depended until 1914) gave his agreement to the under-secretary of State for Fine Arts (on which the national museums depended), subject to Guimet’s assent22. After a moment’s hesitation and a reminder from the under-secretary of State23, a decree was finally drafted in the autumn; dated November 30th, it was sent to both parties on 3 December and included a list of the objects exchanged, including pieces from the Department of Oriental Antiquities and a lacquered statuette from the Louvre’s objets d’art collection24. However, there was no longer any question of transfer or gift, but of reciprocal deposits, no doubt intended for perpetuity.

The objects were finally sent and received at the Guimet Museum on 22 December; after some complaints and adjustments, the last of them were finally deposited on 27 February 190725.

Epilogue

Let us review the sequence of events: the body of the statue was discovered at Medinet Habu in 1855 and published by Greene; its head seems to have already arrived in France before 1874 and ended up in the Guimet collection. The bust was sent to the Louvre in 1884. Between 1894 and 1897, the Musée Guimet managers identified their head with Chepenupet, no doubt in connection with its casting in 1896 (prior to or subsequent to the identification). The circulation of the prints seems to have led the head of the Louvre’s moulders to identify the complementarity of the two pieces in September 1897. After checking the complementarity of the body and the head cast, Bénédite enquired about the details of the head’s acquisition from Guimet, who rather abruptly refused to proceed. Bénédite probably continued his attempts. In 1906, Guimet agreed to a mutual deposit against several pieces from the Egyptian, objets d’art and Greco-Roman antiquities departments. The administrative process of formalising the exchange lasted until, in December 1906, the two fragments of the statue were brought together in the Louvre.

Considered a deposit from the Musée Guimet to the Louvre, our head did not officially join the collections of this second institution until 1948, when Asian objects were transferred from the Louvre to the Musée Guimet in exchange for antiquities, particularly Egyptian ones.

This misadventure illustrates the ferocity of the philanthropist Guimet when it came to defending the interests of his institution26. It has also provided me with an exemplary case of the complementarity of diverse archives, since the developments of this case are to be followed, at least, in the archives…

  • … of the Egyptian Antiquities Department of the Louvre Museum, in the Archives nationales, in the deposit 20144775 ;

  • … of the Musée Guimet, whose library still holds the correspondence;
  • … of the Fine Arts administration, in the Archives nationales in the series F/21;
  • … of the Public Education administration, whose collection in the Archives nationales (series F/17) includes the accounts of the Musée Guimet for the 1890s.

This post was translated into English from the French original “‘Vous n’aurez pas ma tête !’ Un échange entre le Louvre et le musée Guimet”, September 29th, 2019.

  1. Étienne, Marc, n° 24, in Galliano, Geneviève (ed.), Un jour j’achetai une momie. Émile Guimet et l’Égypte antique, Lyon, Hazan, 2012, p. 172. []
  2. The letter includes the statement, which I do not understand, “I, who am not a scholar, had named her Isis, and sold her as such”, which seems to indicate that he is a merchant; but actually he is the head of the casting workshop at the Louvre (see below); did he act as a go-between in the Louvre’s purchase of a cast of the head that he presented as an Isis? []
  3. Archives nationales, 20144775/6; the spelling is haphazard, but apart from one reduplication, the names that appear are consistent with the spellings used, for example, by Paul Pierret in the Catalogue de la salle historique de la galerie égyptienne, Paris, Charles de Mourgues frères, 1873, p. 201: “Schap-en-ap. Daughter of Piankhi (Ra-men-kheper) and Améniritis; she married Psamétik I, foreign king, whose rule she legitimised by the rights she held from her mother, consecrated in her by her priesthood to Amun.”. []
  4. Rougé (de), Emmanuel, “Notice de quelques textes hiéroglyphiques récemment publiés par M. Greene”, 2nd part, L’Athénæum français 50, 1855, p. 1083-1088. []
  5. The curator of the Musée Guimet, see previous post on the staff of this institution: “ Des institutions, des travaux et des hommes : le musée Guimet de Paris“, 18 August 2019. []
  6. Bénédite is mistaken here: the statue entered the Louvre in 1884, as he himself later wrote: Bénédite, Georges, “Sur un étui de tablette trouvé à Thèbes”, Monuments et mémoire de la fondation Eugène Piot 7, 1900, p. 105-119, p. 118119. []
  7. A copy of the letter is preserved in the library of the Musée Guimet among the correspondence of 1898 (box 21); it had already been pointed out by Gady, Éric, “Une place unique au sein de l’égyptologie française”, in Galliano, Geneviève (ed.), Un jour j’achetai une momie. Émile Guimet et l’Égypte antique, Lyon, Hazan, 2012, p. 92-103, p. 96 []
  8. From 1895 to 1898, the Algiers Gallery, the Henri-IV Gallery and the Sérapéum Room (i.e. the ground floor of the southern half of the eastern wing of the Cour Carrée) were refurbished; see: Archives nationales, F/21/4475/B and 20144775/2; Guichard, Sylvie, “Le département des antiquités égyptiennes” in Brec-Bautier, Geneviève and Lintz, Yannick (ed.), Histoire du Louvre, vol. 3, Louvre éditions, 2016, p. 80-84, p. 81. []
  9. Greene, John Beasley, Fouilles exécutées à Thèbes dans l’année 1855, Paris, Firmion Didot frères, 1855, pl. VIII. []
  10. Rionnet, Florence, “Un instrument de propagande artistique : l’atelier de moulage du Louvre”, Revue de l’art 104, 1994, p. 49-50, p. 50, n. 5. []
  11. Archives nationales, F/17/3848/3: bill from the Sadaune company, September 18th 1896. []
  12. Van Rinsveld, Bernard, “Les moulages, reproductions et maquettes de la collection égyptienne des Musées royaux d’art et d’histoire : vrai, faux-semblant et hyperréalité”, Bulletin des musées royaux d’art et d’histoire 82, 2011, p. 17-54, p. 24, n. 36. []
  13. Milloué (de), Léon, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, 2nd ed., Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1894, p. 210. []
  14. Milloué (de), Léon, Petit guide illustré au musée Guimet, 3rd ed., Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1897, p. 292 ; 4th ed., 1900, p. 327 []
  15. Idem, 5th ed., 1904, p. 332: it contains the information given by Pierret, Paul, Catalogue de la salle historique de la galerie égyptienne, Paris, Charles de Mourgues frères, 1873, p. 201. []
  16. Lettre de Pierret à Bénédite, 28 avril 1906, Archives nationales, 20144775/6. []
  17. Strictly speaking, the statue was destined for his museum, which had been a public institution since 1885, and of which he was director for life and without a salary. []
  18. Letter from the Director of National Museums to Gaston Migeon, 17 May 1906, Archives nationales, 20144775/15; the Japanese statue turned out to be number 462 in the Louvre’s Far Eastern inventory. []
  19. Archives nationales, 20144775/15. []
  20. Archives nationales, 20144775/6. []
  21. Letter from the director of national museums to the minister of Public Education and Fine Arts, 25 July 1906, Archives nationales, F/21/4472 et 20144775/15. []
  22. Letter from the Director of Higher Education to the Under Secretary of State for Fine Arts, 24 August 1906, Archives nationales, F/21/4472. []
  23. On September the 10th, Archives nationales, 20144775/15. []
  24. Archives nationales, F/21/4472 et 20144775/15. []
  25. Archives nationales, 20144775/15. []
  26. The records show that he was equally combative for the interests of his staff; see in particular the exchanges preserved in the Archives nationales article F/21/4471. []

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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1 réponse

  1. 8 janvier 2022

    […] of the picture appears the head of Isis transferred to the Louvre in the same year (see “‘You shall not have my head!’ An exchange between the Louvre and the Musée Guimet”, 29 September 2019, translated 31 December 2021.). […]

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