Catching up on a pile of backlogged email, I was gobsmacked to read this excerpt from an upcoming auction announcement … from Auction Central News (inter alia):
The most extraordinary of all items in the sale is the actual mummified hand of Cleopatra, to be auctioned with documentation. The preserved, mummified left hand has an unbroken history of ownership since its acquisition in Egypt by the English General Bowser, in 1794. It was presented to the general as the “hand of Cleopatra, daughter of Ptolemy Auletes.” It measures 7 7/8 inches and is in excellent condition (20.3 cm). The hand is in great condition with slender fingers and well preserved nails.
Accompanying the hand is the original 1894 article about its rediscovery by Mr. Jordan in a lady’s collection, containing the facts per Rev. John Wharton. The hand is retained in the original mahogany case constructed by Mr. Jordan, with original label and photo. Also included is a piece of Mrs. L. Jordan’s stationery with notation about her husband’s prior ownership of the hand, an insurance form for £500 dated 1/4/59, and two letters regarding the sale of the hand for L. Taylor at Sotheby’s, both on their stationery, one dated Aug. 28, 1958 and the other Dec. 31, 1958. Also included is a late 19th-century pamphlet about Cleopatra’s Needle, the Egyptian obelisk that stands on the Victoria Embankment in London.
Following is an excerpt from the paperwork that outlines the history of the hand:
“The mummified hand was presented to the English General Bowser, who defeated Tippoo Sahib in 1783-1794, in 1794 when he was visiting Egypt on his way back to England. Since this was not the usual route from India to England he must have been there for some exploration and acquisition. A letter in an 1894 English newspaper [recounts] the rest of the history of the hand as told by Rev. John Wharton: ‘The account which I have always heard is this: as the General was residing in the country various excavations of mummy pits were being made, and one magnificent but ponderous sarcophagus was brought to light. The inscription was not, I should think. hieroglyphic at so late a date, indicated the mummy as that of the celebrated Cleopatra. One of the hands was immediately presented to the valiant English general, and this is that identical hand.’”
Now one reason for my gobsmackedness — and no, I don’t believe for a moment that this is actually Cleo’s mummified hand — was that it was just back in October that the BBC mentioned (and I failed to blog about):
Staff at a Newcastle auction house have been a little nervous of late, refusing to do anything that means being in the building on their own.
The reason is a 2000-year-old mummified hand which they’ll be auctioning in December.
It comes in its own glass-covered, mahogany box but is far from the prettiest thing the company have sold.
It’s claimed it’s the hand of Queen Cleopatra – though the auctioneers can’t yet guarantee which one.
Andrew McCoull, from Anderson and Garland, says: “The hand itself is what can only be described as a yellowy, leathery colour.
“It’s a lady’s hand, a left hand, with manicured fingernails which are still there and evidence of what was possibly a ring on one of her fingers – there’s a sort of a dark patch – but, all in all, it’s a pretty gruesome looking object.”
The real queen?
The hand – remarkably well preserved – reputedly belonged to the famous Queen Cleopatra but Mr McCoull needs further evidence to support that claim.
The ancient Egyptians seem to have had a habit of giving any old mummified hand to visiting dignitaries.
He says: “It’s got an interesting history. It surfaced in Kirkby Stephen in 1894 and it is documented all the way back to its presentation to General Bowser in Egypt in 1794.
“It was then believed to be presented as Queen Cleopatra’s hand, although there were several Queen Cleopatras.
“We don’t really know at this stage if this is the famous one.”
Card from box containing mummified hand
The hand seems to have provenance – but which Cleopatra is it?
No-one could pretend the hand is pleasant to look at though it obviously has potential historical interest.
The auction house hope to do more research before the sale, possibly contacting The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo to see whether this could be ‘the’ Cleopatra’s hand.
They have no idea who might want to buy it. Mr McCoull admits: “It is pretty gruesome. But, bearing in mind it is over 2000 years old, it’s got a good right to be looking pretty gruesome I think.”
The sale is on Wednesday, 8 December and, between now and then, Anderson and Garland have to decide what the guide price should be.
Normally it’s based on what similar objects have sold for in the past but Mr McCoull says that doesn’t help in this case: “I’m not aware of any mummified hand of any description coming up for sale, certainly in my memory, and that goes back quite a long way, unfortunately.
“So I think we’d be having a stab at probably somewhere in the region of a £1000.”
The official description from the online auction site fills in the ‘hole':
In 1958 the widow of Mr. Jordan, a Mrs. L. Jordan, an antiques dealer herself, sold the hand to one L. Taylor of Tynemouth, Northumberland. This L. Taylor Esq. had the hand insured and began corresponding with Sotheby in late 1958 and early 1959 about placing the mummified hand into one of their auctions, which they showed interest in doing.
The hand however remained in the Taylor family until its sale in late 2010.
A most interesting item with an unbroken history of ownership since its acquisition in 1794!
It is definitely an interesting item … I wouldn’t doubt that it belonged to someone named Cleopatra, actually, but I highly doubt it would be Cleopatra VII … the 18th century tombaroli must have made great profits from their European invaders …