Old Kingdom art: Rare Egyptian sculpture puts a human face on a remote civilization

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, set a world record when it bought this ancient Egyptian limestone sculpture at auction Dec. 9. Extraordinarily, earlier in the same sale, another statue, a granite figure, also set a record for an Egyptian antiquity, when it sold for $2,256,000.

But the granite figure didn't hold that record for long. It was spectacularly overtaken by this "Group Statue of Ka-nefer and His Family," which sold for $2,816,000. According to inscriptions, this tomb sculpture represents the "Overseer of Craftsmen, Priest of Ptah," "His wife, the Royal Confidant, Tjen-tety," and "His son, the Overseer of Craftsmen, Khuwy-ptah." Characteristically,the wife and son are shown smaller. Relative size indicates importance. These two smaller figures affectionately embrace the larger one's legs.

Timothy Potts, the director of the museum, explains the sculpture's remarkable quality by pointing "first and foremost" to "the extraordinary fineness of the carving. Then also the delicacy of the gestures of the son and wife, and the exceptional state of preservation." Some of the original pigment even remains.

Ka-nefer held a relatively high office, according to Dr. Potts, although he was not necessarily in the inner circle of the Pharaoh. "But importantly, it would have given him access to the finest artists," Potts says.

Seen in a photograph, this sculpture might be thought gigantic. But it's just 14 inches high. Potts says that a statue of this size is, however, quite normal: "Quality is more important than size. In fact some of the larger sculptures can be rather crude in comparison."

The date of the work is about 2400 BC, during the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. This is the period when the canonical Egyptian style came together, Potts says. It lasted until about AD 300. The sculpture "can be dated to the Fifth Dynasty by details of the hair and particularly the face," he says. "This type of statue only starts in the Fourth Dynasty."

The piece was purchased from a private collection in the United States. But its known history as a collector's item dates back to a French general, Louis André (1838-1913). Then there is a long gap in its provenance until 1989, when it was bought at auction by the owner who preceded the Kimbell.

This sculpture is a considerable rarity. "There is very little top-rate material of this early date still in private hands that we might consider acquiring," says Potts. Most Egyptian sculpture of comparable quality is already in museums.

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