Private collections

Most of the great Egyptian museums of the world were created in the years following the Napoleon's expedition to Egypt (1798-1801). The rediscovery of pharaonic culture, the decipherment of hieroglyphs, and the birth of Egyptology as a science were direct by-products of this military campaign. Egypt was suddenly in fashion and national museums had to show objects of this long-lost culture.

Obelisk in Rome, originally erected by Seti I in KarnakThe Romans had been the first to feel the attraction of Egyptian art. When they conquered Egypt in 31 BC, they brought back numerous obelisks, sphinxes, and statues as trophies of victory. Soon after the fall of the Roman Empire, Egypt became an Arabic country and was no longer accessible for Christian Europeans. In 1517, however, Egypt came under Turkish rule and became more hospitable towards European merchants and travellers. The antiquities which they brought back helped to create the first public collections of Egyptian art.

It was Napoleon, though, who really opened up Egypt for the West. At the same time, Egyptian antiquities were once more seen as appropriate trophies of war, first of the French, then of the victorious British. From that moment onwards, the national collections of antiquities of France and Britain became contestants in the field of collecting Aegyptiaca. Other European countries were soon to follow. The actual collecting in the field was left to the respective consuls-general in Alexandria. Using the services of unscrupulous adventurers and local workmen, these diplomats ravaged the standing monuments and gutted the cemeteries. Especially lucrative finds were often divided up and thereby got dispersed over several collections. The Turkish Viceroy of Egypt sanctioned these practices and allowed the Europeans to export whatever they wanted.

Belzoni removing the colossal bust of Ramesses II from the Ramesseum in Thebes.Henry Salt, the British consul-general, was a former painter. He sold a first collection to the British Museum in 1823. The negotiations had not been easy, and in 1825 Salt therefore sold his second collection to the Louvre, where the great Champollion had become the curator of the Egyptian collections. After his death a third collection was auctioned in 1835. Salt often used the services of Giambattista Belzoni, formerly a strong man in a circus, who now specialized in the transport of heavy statuary.

The French consul-general was Bernardino Drovetti, a former officer in Napoleon's armies. His first collection, refused by the Louvre because of its high price, was bought by  the Turin Museum in his own native state of Piemonte in 1824. Drovetti's second collection ended up in the Louvre in 1827, part of a third one in 1836 went to Berlin.