Hidden Belgrade (38): Great Men Behind National Museum’s Tiny Egyptology Collection

Ever since Napoleon invaded Egypt at the turn of 19th Century, having  an Egyptological collection was a status symbol in the West. These collections, stuffed with precious ,strange mummies, statuses of animal-headed gods and golden trinkets not only served to pique the curiosity of the local educated elites but were also a symbol of civilisational continuity: that its current rulers and citizens are physically connected across millennia to an advanced civilisation whose artefacts miraculously survived the test of time.

After France, Britain and the US were consumed by Egyptomania, which led to the them hauling obelisks to erect them in their cities and even building new buildings in faux-Egyptian style, the trend spread across Europe and reached the Balkans.

In 1868, in Habsburg-ruled Zagreb, catholic bishop and politician who pushed the idea of the Croatian National Revival, Josip Juraj Strossmayer insisted on the newly formed national museum investing into purchase of a sizeable collection, that is still on display in Zagreb’s wonderful Archaeological museum. Similar romantic, nationalist ideas of a another Habsburg subject were behind the founding of the much smaller Egyptological collection in Belgrade twenty years after Zagreb’s.

Throughout his life, Haji Pavle Riđički, a Serb lawyer and noble from Mokrin, was a major advocate and supporter for Serbian cultural and political revival inside the Austro-Hungarain Empire. Born in 1805, he was a member of the most important Serbian cultural society, Matica Srpska from 1837 and participated in the creation of the short-lived Serbian Vojvodina in 1949, all the while supporting Serbian artists like the composer Kornelije Stanković, who he even legally adopted. However, Riđički’s most memorable feat was his decision to travel from the North Pole to Africa at the age of 80.  In 1888 he visited Luxor in and a market there purchased a few artefacts, including a mummy and casket of a certain Nesmin. He immediately sent the mummy to Belgrade’s National Museum, dedicating it to the Serbian people.

Unfortunately, Belgraders were and are still mostly unaware Riđički’s feat: the mummy was only displayed for a short while when it arrived and then put in storage.

Similar destiny befell the second most important object in the tiny collection: the stunning coffin of Nefer-renepet from Akhmim, a dancer in the temple of Min, which was donated in 1921 by Ernest Brummer, an impressive figure himself.

Ernest Brummer and his siblings, Joseph and Imre ,who were born in Sombor to a Jewish family who owned a paprika mill, opened a gallery in 1906 in Paris and became part of the pre-WWI art scene, rubbing shoulders with Auguste Rodin and Henri Rousseau. Although an Austro-Hungarian citizen, Ernest joined the French army during WWI, however he ultimately returned to the family business of collecting and selling European, Egyptian, Pre-Columbian and African archaeological artefacts this time from New York. Until Joseph Brummer’s death in 1947, Brummer Gallery’s collection was considered one of the best in the world and afterwards much of it was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although Ernest visited Egypt, Nefer-renepet’s coffin was actually purchased in London in 1921 at an auction of “Amherst collection”. Ernest immediately sent it to Belgrade’s National Museum (along with a few more, now-lost artefacts) however the coffin only made it to the Museum in 1923 due to administrative difficulties.

Unfortunately, Riđički’s mummy and Brummer’s gift fell into oblivion after WWII, and even the museum records attributed acquisitions to other sources. The former was even lent to Podgorica’s Museum of Non-Aligned Movement, until it was brought back to Belgrade in 1990s thanks to the dogged determination of Dr Branislav Anđelković, an egyptologist at Belgrade Univestity’s Philosophical Faculty. Anđelković also worked on uncovering the true provenance of these artefacts, which after all the problems, are finally regularly displayed on the second floor of the National Museum.


Ernest Brummer and the Coffin of Nefer-renepet from Akhmim

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