A Unique Treasure of the Wilbour Library of Egyptology: The Visitor’s Guest Book of Maurice Nahman

  • Posted on Sep 13, 2015 by

The words Maurice Nahman – Antiquare embossed in delicate gold on maroon leather are a little worn now – and the pages inside are fragile. Despite the passage of time however, the storied “Nahman Guest Book”, once owned by legendary Egyptian antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman (1868–1948) of Cairo, has survived surprisingly well considering the weight of history that it holds.

Beginning in 1918 with the last entry dated 1976 Nahman’s guest or visitor’s book contains the original signatures and notes of prominent archaeologists, Egyptologists, scholars and curators of the day who frequented the renowned gallery. In addition to his more serious customers, Nahman’s establishment was visited by actresses, millionaires, collectors and kings. Cairo was a major center for acquiring antiquities at the time and Maurice Nahman’s Gallery was one of the most important places to view and purchase Egyptian and near Eastern art and artifacts.

The guest book was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum through the Nahman Family. Part of the Wilbour Library of Egyptology’s Special Collections, this unique resource is now on exhibit at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan in their exhibition: Passionate Curiosities:  Collecting in Egypt & the Near East, 1880s–1950s  August 28–November 29, 2015.

Time, the smell of old leather and the crackling brown pages give Nahman’s book an antique allure –  but imagine it new. Who was the first to open this elegant tome and write on a fresh blank page?

“F.W. Green 5 Wordsworth St Cambridge” was the first notable guest to make his mark. It’s an ordinary name in a modest and legible script, but also the beginning of an extraordinary story that unfolded over half a century.

F. W. Green was curator and Honorary Keeper of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge from 1908–1949. He worked with some of the great names in Egyptology of the time and excavated at Hierakonpolis with the team that found the famed Narmer Palette. He later excavated at Eileithyiaspolis (El-Kab) with the Rev. Archibald Sayce.

Sayce’s signature appears on page 4, dated 1918. A few pages later the Princesse Frédéric Léopold of Prussia signs in a graceful hand, adding that she is staying at the ‘Continental’. (p.12). She’s followed by the Egyptologist Jean Capart (p.26) who,  in the 1930s, worked at the Brooklyn Museum in the Department of Egyptian Art.  Capart signed Nahman’s book twice, once in hieroglyphs.

Howard Carter who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun visited the famed gallery in 1935; his name appears on p.54. The succinct and polished signature of his patron Lord Carnavon, “Carnavon Highclere Newbury”, precedes him (p.53).

Browsing long lists of famous signatures along with notes and addresses can be addictive, but in disregarding context the reader is in danger of being enveloped in a kind of complicated fog. The Nahman guest book is far from just a curiosity or an interesting piece of ephemera. It’s an important research tool.

Maurice Nahman in front of his gallery in Cairo around 1940.

Maurice Nahman in front of his gallery in Cairo around 1940. (from Galerie L'Ibis

Objects that were sold through Nahman’s Gallery are represented in prominent collections throughout the world.  The visitor’s book is both a rare artifact and an instrument for tracing provenance for objects in major collections of Egyptian and near Eastern Antiquities. The book gives form to what would otherwise be random information. Guest signatures appear in chronological order, often with associated dates; institutional affiliations are frequently noted, and commentary about current excavations and projects appear.

Still, when the serious work of research is done it’s a delight to let go and allow this unique object to stimulate your imagination. Nahman not only catered to serious scholars and collectors, he also operated when interest in Ancient Egypt was enhanced through popular culture including films. In the pages of this treasure, odd pairings appear out of nowhere. We wonder if John D Cooney, a curator of Antiquities at the Brooklyn Museum, visited at the same time as Hollywood actress Ruth Selwyn, whose flamboyant signature, complete with Beverly Hills address, is splashed boldly across the page that they share (p.63). What about the showy Henry E. Ringling of circus fame and the famous collector of Chinese art Sir David Percival (p.43)? Their names were entered inches apart – did they meet?

Left:  "Maurice Nahmann in his gallery.", 1945. B/w photograph (original print). Brooklyn Museum. (N362_N14_Maurice_Nahman_1945_SL4.jpg) Right: Hôtel Drouot. Antiquités égyptiennes, Grecques Et Romaines, 1953.

Left:  "Maurice Nahmann in his gallery.", 1945. B/w photograph (original print). Brooklyn Museum. (N362_N14_Maurice_Nahman_1945_SL4.jpg)

Right: Hôtel Drouot. Antiquités égyptiennes, Grecques Et Romaines, 1953.

Nahman’s passing marked the end of an era, but not the end of Nahman’s influence. Many of the artifacts collected by Nahman continued to make their way into important collections both public and private. After his death, sales of Nahman material were held at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris in 1953. Another significant auction of Nahman objects was held at Christie's in South Kensington in 2004.

The guest book concludes with a long and affectionate tribute to the Nahman Gallery of Cairo by Maurice Nahman’s daughter Alexandra Nahman Manessero. All things must end – and yet, not quite. The people who shaped the great museums and collections of our time – the connoisseurs, the curators, the philanthropists and all the others with a passion for the past – live on. Turn the pages and a thousand unique and expressive signatures whisper – ‘we were here’!

Roberta Munoz, Librarian, Wilbour Library of Egyptology, Brooklyn Museum

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