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Royall Tyler to Robert Woods Bliss, January 7, 1927 [2]

Motto: “Patience, not passion.”“Patience, not Passion, builds up the great heart.” Frederick Tennyson, Isles of Greece (1890). See also letter of February 6, 1927.

Hotel Continental Cairo.
7.1.27Friday.

Dear Robert.

I have just spent a day examining the treasure, and have just wired to you: “Objects seen immediate decision inadvisable writing arriving Budapest 18th.”See telegram of January 7, 1927 [1].

Aboucassem, the owner, arrived here late last night, and at 9.30 this morning Peirce and I called on him and looked over the goods as he unpacked them. He and I both received the same impression, and are quite in agreement, but Elisina has a rather different feeling, so I have urged her to do you a minority report, as it is valuable to get more than one point of view on such a question.See letter of January 7, 1927 [3].

What first struck and rather shocked us was the colour of the objects. They appear all to have been in the hands of the Bishop of Hama, who had them very drastically cleaned with acid, so that the silver is quite white and the gilding has almost all been removed with the patina—though here and there small blotches of patina have defied all efforts, acid and scratching, to efface them. The quality of the silver, as you may imagine, is not beautiful as a result of this treatment.

The objects that have suffered least are the two candlesticks,Pair of Lampstands, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.634–635. and they are far the finest in every respect.

One of them, the right hand one on Plate XXIX in “Syria”,Charles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 9. is broken just above the base of the column that forms the shaft of the candlestick, but that is a very minor matter, and could be repaired so that it wouldn’t show. The solid silver of the candlesticks has suffered far less from the cleaning than the other objects, and they have kept something of the bluish tone one looks for in such things. They are a grand pair.

The same (as to colour) is true in an even greater degree of the little capsellaEucharistic Box or Reliquary, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.638. (on the left of Plate XXII in Syria),Charles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 23. which is a lovely little box, both in surface and in engraving—but does not form part of the treasure and did not pass through the hands of the Bishop of Hama.The Walters Art Museum describes this piece as having been found in Kurin with the rest of the silver treasure. See entry for the Eucharistic Box or Reliquary. However, it is for sale with the lot, and it’s a very tempting morsel, probably earlier than the rest.

In the order of merit, the small crossVotive or Dedicatory Cross, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.629. to the left of PI. XXIV,Charles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 13. strange to say, comes next as far as colour and surface go, and the big plain crossProcessional or Altar Cross, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.641. on the same plate is pretty good, even very good in shape. The crossProcessional or Altar Cross, Walters Art Museum, acc. no. 57.632. on PI. XXIICharles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 14. not so good. The loucheLadle, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.646. on PI. XXIIICharles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 20. and the spoonSpoon, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.649. to the right of it are very attractive, and the little sieve-spoonStrainer, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.650. is pretty. All the spoonsSpoon, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.647; Spoon, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.648; Spoon, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.649; and Spoon, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.651. rather nice, in fact.

Of the plates, the finest is the smallest of the threeLarge Paten, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.637. (PI. XXVII)Charles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 4. with a good inscription. The one on PI. XXVICharles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 6. Paten, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.643. is also pretty good, the otherCharles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 5. Paten, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.644. poor. But none of these plates are at all first rate, the inscriptions are not more than fair, engraved only, without niello. The one on PI. XXVIILarge paten, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.637. has one square poinçon“Stamp.” See Erica Cruikshank Dodd, Byzantine Silver Stamps (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, 1961), 266–67, no. 98. of early type, and one star-shaped poinçon. The other two are without poinçons. The colour of the plates is uninteresting, and their surface marred by the scratching and acid washing. The lamp or holy water bucketLamp, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.640. (PI. XXVII)Charles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 11. is of about the same quality, but has 5 poinçons, of which one representing the Assumption of the Virgin as on the little ampullae from the Holy Land at MonzaAndré Grabar, Ampoules de Terre Sainte (Monza, Bobbio) (Paris: C. Klincksieck, 1958), 17, pl. 3. See Utpictura18, “Ampoule d’étain avec l’ascension du Christ.” is remarkable. Surface scratched and rather unsightly almost like that of a much used plated champagne-cooler.

The ewerEwer, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.645. (PI. XXVIII)Charles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 7. is scratched and bossellé,“Dented.” more than you’d think from the photo, and it doesn’t stand up. Rather a fine shape, but the inscription is poor, as also the colour. No poinçons;“Stamps.” slight traces of gilding on the inscription.

The holy-oil bottleOil Flask, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.639. (PI. XXX)Charles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 10. is rather better in colour and surface than the plates and ewer, but the quality of the relief-figures is not as good as I’d expected from the photo. It’s really a debased member of the group best known by the Projecta casket in the British Museum.British Museum, London, M&ME 1866, 12-29,1.

The little cup,Silver cup, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.631. right of PI. XXII,Charles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 22. is of no great interest, and has been as vigorously cleaned as any.

So have the three chalices; in colour they are disappointing, and in form the right hand one on PI. XIXCharles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 2. is the only good one.Chalice, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.642. Almost all the niello is gone out of the inscriptions of the two on PI. XIX.Charles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): nos. 1 and 2. Silver chalice, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.642. The figures in relief on the chalice on PI. XX,Charles Diehl, “Un nouveau trésor d’argenterie syrienne,” Syria 7, no. 2 (1926): no. 3. Chalice with Apostles Venerating the Cross, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.636. and the detail, are no better than they look in the reproduction, and the pointillé“Dotted.” inscription is poor. Traces of gilding on all the chalices, but it looks as if the acid washing had eaten away and almost smudged the gilding, which is now only just visible, and doesn’t contribute to the appearance of the objects.

No poinçons“Stamps.” on the figured chalice. That of the Sons of Theophilus has four poinçons,Erica Cruikshank Dodd, Byzantine Silver Stamps (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, 1961), 129–30, no. 34. The inscription of the chalice (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.642) reads in translation: In fulfillment of a vow and [for] the salvation of JOHN and THOMAS and MANNOS, the [sons] of THEOPHILOS. and the smallest one five,Erica Cruikshank Dodd, Byzantine Silver Stamps (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, 1961), 78–79, no. 13. one of which shows an Emperor’s head exactly like coins of Maurice and Tiberius Constantine (end VIth cent.)See Erica Cruikshank Dodd, Byzantine Silver Stamps (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, 1961), 79, no. 13, pl. b.

The way I have dwelt on the cleaning will have suggested to you that I was disagreeably affected by it. The strong colour of the silver, coupled with the spots and blotches of patina which were refractory to the acid, is rather shocking, especially in the chalices, the lamp or holy-water bucket and the ewer. It isn’t much better in the plates. We found ourselves wondering whether the silver might not be a bit base—some of the things look almost pewtery.

The collection is of very great interest archaeologically, and would make a very valuable addition to any museum, but for sheer beauty the only compelling things in it, apart from the dear little box, are the two candlesticks,Pair of Lampstands, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.634-635. and they are superb, most rare and far less marred by cleaning—in fact very good in colour and surface, in spite of attempts which, in parts, went so far as actually to use a file to get off the patina.

I will now give you a brief account of my conversation with Aboucassem. I only wish I could have made a gramophone record of it—you’d appreciate it, but it would take a week to write it all down.

As I wrote to you from Trieste, Aboucassem had refused to bring his stuff to Cairo. When I got here I sent Eric’s letter to Abouc. at Port Said and sent him a message to the effect that as I had come a 5 days journey I thought he might travel 5 hours to meet me, and he acquiesced.

The price he had mentioned to Eric was £20,000. He realised from Eric’s letter that no British Museum was competing, and only mentioned £20,000 to me in a perfunctory way, and soon was talking about £12,000 net for him, over and above the commissions.

Of course, he has had the lung worried out of him by the dealers, our friends and others, who have tried to spin round him an endless web of options and promises of commission. I thought the safest way, in the circumstances, was to lay the cards on the table, so I told him that you had been told about the collection by Kalebdjian, that Kalebdjian was holding out for 20% commission to be paid by the buyer and asserted that he stood to receive nothing from the vendor. And as all the dealers have concealed from Aboucassem the name of the clients they claimed to have up their sleeves, I told him “confidentially” your name, in order that he might take seriously my statement to the effect that if he dealt with you no commission would have to be paid by him, except for the travelling expenses which would be deducted from the purchase price. I wish you could have heard his heartrending description of how one dealer produced, for his benefit, a fake American millionaire, with an eyeglass, who was unsuccessful in dissembling his Armenian accent, though he did his best.

I then told him that I had been greatly shocked by the way the objects had been cleaned, and that I would have to explain it all to you, who were not a collector, but merely bought, now and then, objects for the sake of their beauty. I doubted whether you would want them at all, and I certainly couldn’t advise you to make any offer before having fully explained what they looked like.

It emerged then that Abou. had given an option, for one year expiring Jan. 31 inst., to a dealer here for £12,000, but would be free after Jan. 31 to sell independently of the dealer at any price, and even now to sell for less than £12,000. If the dealer got him a client at £12,000, the dealer’s commission was to be £2,000, Abou. getting £10,000 for himself. Abou. added that he had paid £8,500 himself for the collection in 1910.

I then said that I feared he had paid a very high price for it, that I had watched the market in Paris and London for 20 years, and couldn’t imagine that he’d ever succeed in selling the collection at a profit, except conceivably by splitting it up.

He stated very energetically that he would never split it up, that he didn’t need the money, and that he would sell to you at once for £10,000, but not for less. I told him again I thought it very doubtful whether you would be interested at all, and any way the price seemed far too high.

He then asked me to say what I thought would be a reasonable price, and I replied that I had, in my own mind, first made an inclusive estimate for the lot, and had then jotted down estimates for each object, and that the total of the detailed estimate had amounted to very near the inclusive figure at about £5000. He swallowed, rather, at this, but thanked me for my kindness. He added that as long as he didn’t actually need the cash he wouldn’t sell for less than £10,000, but that if he were to need the cash, and decided to take less, he’d let me know. In the meantime, I agreed to write to you and give you a detailed description, and said he would hear from me, or you, if you were at all interested at the price he now wanted.

My impression is that Abou. has been toreado“Fought.” so much by dealers and intermediaries that he is sick and tired of the whole business and anxious to get out and never touch an antiquity again—and that the time may be not far distant when he will begin to toy with the notion of selling at the figure he says he gave, or even less—anything to get out. If he suddenly wanted money urgently for any reason he might come along, come across, in fact.

If he were willing to sell the whole lot for six or seven thousand pounds, I think I’d buy. Or if he’d sell the candlesticks,Pair of Lampstands, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.634-635. I’d give him two thousand for them—and get him to throw the little boxEucharistic Box or Reliquary, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.638. into the bargain.

The other objects are all perfectly authentic, and make an ensemble of very great archaeological interest, with a ray of beauty here and there. If you didn’t want them, you could probably get rid of some of them, the bigger pieces. I think BrummerProbably Joseph Brummer. might be useful there.

As Eric showed interest in the photos, it is possible that he or the B. M.British Museum. might be glad to have a few pieces. His letter to me made it perfectly clear that they couldn’t consider the lot. You might think this over, and if you like the idea, either you, when you’re next in London, or I if you want me to, might speak to Eric, in order to be ready if occasion arises. In the meantime, I shall only tell Eric that you asked me to look at the things, and that I haven’t advised you to make any offer for the lot, and that the owner will not consider selling piece by piece.

I feel pretty sure that you’d find the candlesticksPair of Lampstands, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, acc. no. 57.634-635. superb. As for the other things, my feeling is that, if I were able to afford it without depriving myself of something I badly wanted, I would buy the lot for 6, 7 or even 8000, possibly, for the sake of their arch. interest and beauty of form, here and there, and hope that, by living surrounded by sympathy and kindness, they would lose the bleak, sand-soap and scrubbing-brush air, like orphan children dressed up for church on Sunday, which they bear at present, poor pets. I dare say that by nestling in soft wrappings they would gradually improve their complexions; the question is, how long would it take? It really is heart-rending that they should have been so misused.

So I don’t think there’s much danger of their being snapped up by anyone else for the time-being, though I admit that you, with your paten, and I, with our chalice, have a standard which is far higher than the rest of humanity would expect these poor waifs to come up to. But the figure Abou. is asking is a high one, and I really should be surprised if he got anyone to pay it. And when he has been worn down a little more by the bonnes volontés“Goodwill.” surrounding him, he may come and knock at our door in a frame of mind ready to accept a reasonable price.

I have given Abou. my address.

To Kalebdjian I shall merely write that the quality of the objects was not such that I could make any offer in your behalf, but that I had written a full report to you, and of course could not know what you would decide.

This is a fearfully long letter—and even so I’ve cut out a lot of oriental imbroglio about the commission intrigues that would amuse you. It’s possible that before I leave I may have further proposals from Abou. but my hunch is to let him simmer for a bit.

We are enjoying the trip immensely, and the insight into local methods of business which the errand has given us is as precious as a peep into the most jealously-guarded seraglio.

Bill is most useful—tender morsel, he attracts all the fleas that might otherwise batten on us.

I often think of the copla por tientos:“Melancholy song.”

Si pasas por el desierto,
fijate en las gitanitas
que rescuscitan los muertos.
Si alguna vez vas a Egipto,
pasa por el desierto.“If you go through the desert, notice the gypsies that resurrect the dead. If you ever go to Egypt, pass through the desert.”

Much love from Elisina and Bill to you and Mildred, and greetings from Peirce.

Yours ever
R. T.

I haven’t presented any of the letters of introduction—and time is so short that I don’t think I will present them. There’s a fearful amount to see here, and in the dark hours Peirce and I are preparing our communication for the Belgrade Congress of ByzantinologyRoyall Tyler and Hayford Peirce delivered the talk “Two Landmarks in Tenth Century Byzantine Art” at the Deuxième Congès International des Études Byzantines, Belgrade, April 14, 1927. The talk was published as “Deux monuments dans l’art byzantin du Xe siècle,” Aréthuse 16 (July 1927): 1–8. in April (6–11)

*Abou. is not a dealer, but manager of the Branch of the Ottoman Bank at Port Said.

*Elisina asks me to explain that she only saw the objects for about 10 minutes.

 
Associated Places: Cairo (Egypt)
Associated Artworks: BZ.1924.5; BZ.1955.18

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