Egyptian antiquities in Australia – real and fake

In the course of my research I have come across some useful information on the trade in fake Egyptian antiquities in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  These were mainly aimed at the tourist market rather than the art collector or connoisseur, generally small items like scarabs and coins rather than sculpture or mummies.  Given the abundance of Egyptian finds that have been claimed as evidence for secret visitors to Australia I thought it may be worth getting some of this better documented.

It is generally believed that there would have been few Egyptian objects in Australia until the Great War [eg Gilroy 2003: 240].  During World War 1 thousands of Australian troops served in the Middle East and it was likely that many of them would have brought home souvenirs of their time there.  It certainly resulted in some notable additions to the cultural landscape, such as the Shellal mosaic in the Australian War Memorial, and the Sphinx and pyramid sculpture near the Ku-ring-gai Hospital that was sculpted by a recovering serviceman to commemorate his mates.

However, there is known Egyptian material in Australia that pre-dates World War 1.  For example, during the archaeological excavations of the Lilyvale site at The Rocks in Sydney, an Egyptian Ushabti figure was discovered in an indisputable 19th century context [personal observation]There were also some finds of ancient coins.  The most likely explanation is that they are related to the maritime population of The Rocks, and may be part of sailors’ personal mementoes or gifts brought back for their family.  Shipwrecks often yield ethnographic objects that are clearly part of the personal possessions of sailors, carried as exotica or souvenirs, perhaps for sale on their return to their home port.

Rather than World War 1, it was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 that first saw a large number of travellers to Australia passing through the Middle East and the beginnings of a tourism trade in souvenirs.  Wealthier Australians also returned the same way to Britain when they had their version of the ‘Grand Tour’.

The importation of fakes was such an issue by the early 20th century that the antiques trade lobbied the new Australian Commonwealth government to exert more control.  A newspaper report on the issue noted that it was not only fake Egyptian antiquities being imported but ethnographic articles allegedly from Australia and Oceania, as well as other material.  The article is from the Melbourne Argus in January 1911.  It clearly shows the amount of material that was coming into Australia already before the Great War and bears quoting at length.

Forged curios – an extensive business – Federal action sought

The Customs authorities have at present under consideration the question to prevent or restrict the importation to Australia of forged ‘curios’.  For several years past the evil has been growing, and it has now reached extensive proportions.

The Minister for Customs [Mr Tudor] has been approached by experts and collectors – for whom Mr I. Kozminsky, of Melbourne, and Professor Anderson Stuart, of the Sydney University, have been acting – who have pointed out that the frauds have been successful, inasmuch as even old and experienced collectors have been duped and induced to spend large sums of money on articles of practically no value.  The suggestion of collectors is that importers should be compelled to have the word ‘replica’ or ‘reproduction’ or ‘copy’ on every piece of imitation work brought into the country.

Of particular interest to Australians is the practice of making in Germany and England aboriginal weapons – a comparatively recently started industry.  Boomerangs and spears, which no blackfellow has ever seen, are at times on sale in Melbourne as Australian weapons.  Even stone hatchets are passed off successfully.  Aboriginal weapons are not difficult to make, and they find a ready sale.  This trade increases in volume year by year, for the really primitive weapon, made by the wild aborigine without the aid of steel knives – is becoming yearly scarcer.  Samples of the weapons of totally uncivilized backs in the Gulf country and the north of Western Australia are sent to England as patterns, and hundreds of the imitations are exported.  South Sea Island idols, of wood and stone, to which no heathen in his blindness has ever bowed down, are also sent to Australia in very large numbers.  For these, too, there is a good demand.

Ancient Egyptian coins are imitated and sent to Australia, as well as other countries.  Various methods are followed in making such forgeries.  One of the simplest is to take an impression of an old coin in wax, and put it in an electric bath for a deposit of copper.  Each side is done separately, and the two are then placed together.  The much-sought Egyptian scarabs, made in the days of the Ptolemys, are worth about £1/10 each.  Hundreds of imitations come to Australia – very clever forgeries, made by the Arabs of to-day, and sold to tourists at whatever they will pay for them.  The hieroglyphics are generally perfect, and the imitations are made of steatite, as were most of the ancient scarabs. …[Argus (Melbourne) 20 January 1911, p. 6]

There are no further newspaper reports that I could find relating to this lobbying and no legislative action appears to have been taken.  This issue is worth chasing up further in Commonwealth Archives, if only to try to get a more detailed description of the trade.

One of the few published studies of the Egyptian forgery industry also predates the Great War.  Wakeling [1912]  noted that the demand from tourists and collectors had already long outstripped the supply of chance genuine finds.  The Egyptian government in 1912 enacted even more rigorous controls on the export of genuine antiquities and exploratory excavation, tightening the supply even further and encouraging even more forgery [1912: pp. 6-7].

While Wakeling focussed on the forger and their art as the essential ingredient he does not excuse the collector as the driver for this industry being created.  Either they are gullible and assume that there are genuine scarabs lying on the ground and that they have been well-served by the local trying to sell it to them, or they must have some sense that they are dealing with people who are either illegally selling their country’s patrimony or are passing off forgeries.  As an archaeologist Wakeling was able to carefully examine and discern the small differences between real and fake examples, but this was not a skill that many had to help them.

He recounts a number of instances when he was a guest of people who asked him to cast an eye over the relics they had picked up on their travels to Egypt.  Very often they were fake but their reaction to this news was seldom the expected feeling of being ripped off.  Wakeling says

As a rule, they are angry, but they are extremely careful to keep their feelings to themselves.  If you enquire, they pooh-pooh the transaction as one of little moment, and pass it over, although, as I shall presently show, many pounds have been lost.  But, if the conversation is not changed, and you wait patiently, you will presently find that under the carefully repressed annoyance runs a vein of genuine regret that the nice-spoken, honest-looking and plausible Hassan or Mohammed had cheated them.[1912: p. 6]

Scarabs were the most difficult artefacts to identify as real or fake and Wakeling devotes an entire chapter to the most common mistakes that were being made by forgers.  Because they could be readily copied from authentic specimens ‘it is now extremely difficult for even well-known Egyptologists to give a definite statement of a specimen submitted to them’ [1912: p. 67].

Only careful examination will identify whether a particular Egyptian relic is real or a forgery.  A pre-World War I date however should no longer be part of the argument in favour of authenticity.  Much more important is context of discovery, as shown by the ushabti from The Rocks, and careful examination of all circumstances of discovery and the object itself as in the Ptolemy coin found in Queensland.


Argus 1911
‘Forged curios – an extensive business – Federal action sought’, Argus, Melbourne, 20 January 1911, p. 6.

Gilroy, R. 2003
Mysterious Australia, URU Publications, Katoomba, 2nd edition.

Merillees, R. 1990
Living with Egypt’s past in Australia, Museum of Victoria, Melbourne.

Wakeling, T.G. 1912
Forged Egyptian antiquities, London.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: