Collecting Ancient Egypt at Lisbon’s Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

The Museu Calouste Gulbenkian grew out of the personal collection of its name-sake: Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian. Today, the museum is one of Lisbon’s most well-known destinations. He was born in Istanbul to a rich, Armenian family in 1869. At a young age, he went to study French in Marseilles before continuing his studies at King’s College London with an emphasis on physics (taking on British citizenship in 1902). Eventually, Calouste Gulbenkian became an instrumental figure in negotiating between the major petroleum companies of the day and attained the moniker “Five Percent Man” for receiving five percent of the capital, some of which he invested in amassing an art collection of his own. This week, the Nile Scribes take a closer look at the small ancient Egyptian collection now on display in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.

Entering today's Museu Calouste Gulbenkian (photo: Nile Scribes)
Entering today’s Museu Calouste Gulbenkian (photo: Nile Scribes)

Calouste Gulbenkian: the Collector

Historians describe the close relationships Gulbenkian enjoyed with many collectors of the day; for him the high quality of his art purchases was always key. He had been heard to say that: “Only the best is good enough for me.” Gulbenkian purchased his first Egyptian object in 1907: a bowl made from breccia, which dates to the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BC). After moving to Paris in 1920, his Egyptian collection had grown substantially enough for some of the objects to be sent to the British Museum in the 1930s for a loan, including a small head of Senwosret III, which was carved out of obsidian (Inventory no. 138).

“His first acquisitions were not really noteworthy; they were only the starting point of what was to become one of the most remarkable private collections in the world. With admirable taste and with the wide interests in art which were characteristic of him – he searched and prospected in all fields – he managed little by little to surround himself with exceptional pieces.” (1)

A head of Senwosret III shows the high quality of Egyptian craftsmanship - Inventory no. 138 (photo: Nile Scribes)
A head of Senwosret III shows the high quality of Egyptian craftsmanship – Inventory no. 138 (photo: Nile Scribes)

Despite purchasing the first Egyptian object in 1907, Gulbenkian would not visit Egypt until 1934 at the age of 65. The country itself inspired him. He was particularly moved by the power of Egyptian sunsets. In one case, he hurried back to his hotel in Aswan after a visit to Philae in an attempt to catch the “superb sunset.” A photograph of him seated under the protection of the god Horus at the Temple of Horus at Edfu proved the inspiration for a bronze copy now set up in Lisbon’s Jardim da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian.

Calouste Gulbenkian sitting under a statue of Horus at the Temple of Horus at Edfu (photo: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian)
Calouste Gulbenkian sitting under a statue of Horus at the Temple of Horus at Edfu (photo: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian)

With the breakout of the Second World War and in his search for a neutral country, Gulbenkian moved to Lisbon in 1942, where he lived in the Hotel Aviz for the last 13 years of his life until his death in 1955. John Walker, conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (which displayed some of Gulbenkian’s objects in the late 1940s) eloquently sums up the alluring persona that was Calouste Gulbenkian:

“In a sense his life became merged with his art and his art with his life.” (2)

The Museu Calouste Gulbenkian today

In total, Gulbenkian’s collection includes more than 6,000 pieces and spans a vast time period from the early third millennium BC until the twentieth century. Two years before his death, Gulbenkian drafted a will that established an international foundation in his name. Many of his objects, which were displayed for some years in the United States in the late 1940s and 1950s, were moved to Portugal together with the entirety of the collection in 1960. It was not, however, until October 2, 1969, when today’s Museu Calouste Gulbenkian opened and the collection moved into its new home. Today, the Egyptian gallery is among the focal points of the collection.

The Ancient Egypt Gallery

The Egyptian collection is quite small in number, although the majority of it is on display in the gallery. In many cases, each individual object is displayed in its own case, though in some instances they are grouped thematically. Among the earliest objects from the museum is a relief (Inventory no. 159) from the tomb of Merytites from Giza, which shows two figures on either side of a cartouche of the Fourth Dynasty king Khufu (2,543-2,436 BC). Some paint is still preserved along the cartouche and signs, and the two figures have been identified as the daughters of Merytites and Akhtihotep.

Relief of two figures next to the cartouche of Khufu (Fourth Dynasty from Giza) (photo: Nile Scribes)
Relief of two figures next to the cartouche of Khufu (Fourth Dynasty from Giza) (photo: Nile Scribes)

The objects range in date from the early Old Kingdom (2,543-2,120 BC) down to the Ptolemaic Period, though the majority are from the later parts of Egyptian history. From large-scale statues of private individuals to royal examples, the collection also features well-known kinds of Egyptian objects. These include a statuette of Osiris (Inventory no. 404) dating to the Late Period (722-332 BC) as well as a gilded funerary mask (Inventory no. 62). Nevertheless, it is notable that no mummy or sarcophagus made it into Gulbenkian’s collection – pieces that were normally the standard repertoire of private Egyptian collections in Europe.

A bronze boat (Inventory no. 168), which Gulbenkian purchased from Sotheby’s in 1924, shows a sacred bark with a shrine on top. It dates to the Late Period and belongs to Djedhor (his name is inscribed on both sides of the shrine). Inside the shrine is a figure of the god Re-Horakhty and the entrance is flanked by figures of Isis and Nephthys. The boat itself is an ornate example of a finial, which most likely was attached to a wooden pole and used by priests in processions.

Bronze boat belonging to Djedhor - Inventory no. 168 (photo: Nile Scribes)
Bronze boat belonging to Djedhor – Inventory no. 168 (photo: Nile Scribes)

A statue of the official Bes dates to the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (664-525 BC) and shows Bes seated with his right leg placed horizontally, while his left leg is raised. While the statue may show the influence of Greek sculpture with the so-called ‘archaic smile’, the overall style also places it within the continuing traditions of Old Kingdom art.

Seated statue of Bes - Inventory no. 158 (photo: Nile Scribes)
Seated statue of Bes – Inventory no. 158 (photo: Nile Scribes)

A masterpiece most likely the highlight of the collection is a relief that shows an Egyptian ruler wearing a blue crown. Incised with an elaborately ornate pattern of ringlets on the crown, the king is shown in profile with the uraeus protruding from above his forehead. Looking at the back of the crown, one notices also the figure of the Horus falcon with spread wings in an act of protecting the king. Unfortunately, we do not know the provenance of this piece as Gulbenkian purchased it from the Khawam Brothers in Cairo with the help of Howard Carter in 1926; Gulbenkian was in close contact with Carter for several of his Egyptian purchases!

Relief of a ruler with the blue crown - Inventory no. 167 (photo: Nile Scribes)
Relief of a ruler with the blue crown – Inventory no. 167 (photo: Nile Scribes)

Collectors and Museums: from Curiosities to Today

As an aspiring museum professional, I deliberated on writing a blog about the collection of a private collector: after all, we still discuss the use of private collections in the study of our modern field. With the recent revelations surrounding purchases made by Hobby Lobby and the Bible Museum, the question arises: should scholars encourage the study of these objects or disregard them as a way of condemning the illegal antiquities trade? The Museu Calouste Gulbenkian’s collection is made up of the possessions of a wealthy businessman whose penchant for collecting masterpieces of art spanned many periods and cultures around the world. In a similar context, museums in the western world have in many cases adopted a similar approach toward collecting: the goal being to make a museum which can be considered a microcosm of the world, or a physical encyclopaedia. In many cases today, the line between purchasing objects legally from secure contexts and acquiring objects from looted circumstances is still blurred. The 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property has been successful in curbing the trade of illicit antiquities, but it has not completely brought about the cessation of interest in acquiring objects of antiquity by whatever means necessary. In this context, the close link between the museum and the collector provides an arena for further debate – a topic which cannot be fully handled in this blog post. Many scholars (ourselves included) would like to see the antiquities trade curtailed entirely; yet this debate, which has more or less raged over millennia, will not be abated so easily. In the case of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, we can be grateful that the entirety of his collection more or less ended up on public display to serve the community – if only we would be this lucky more often…

Looking around the Egyptian gallery (3)
Looking around the Egyptian gallery (3)


  1. Perdigão, José de Azeredo. 1969. Calouste Gulbenkian Collector. Translated by Ana Lowndes Marques. Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation – page 12.
  2. Shapley, Fern Rusk. 1950. European Paintings from the Gulbenkian Collection. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art – page 8.
  3. Araújo, Luís Manuel de. 2006. Egyptian Art. Calouste Gulbenkian Collection. Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation – page 53.

Further Reading

The collection was published in a lavishly illustrated museum catalogue by Luís Manuel de Araújo entitled Egyptian Art: Calouste Gulbenkian Collection. It not only contains thorough description of the objects in the collection, but also chapters on a history of ancient Egypt and an introduction to Egyptian art.