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Hawara, Egypt, Trajan Period, beginning of the 2nd century CE
Wooden panel, polychrome-painted using the encaustic technique and mounted on a later wooden panel. Visible dimensions 38 × 23.5 cm.
Estimate: CHF 20 000 / 30 000
Auction: 21 September 2023
Click on the image for further information.

Mummy portraits, or ‘Fayum’ portraits as they are often called, are realistically painted likenesses which were placed over the faces of mummies in parts of Egypt from the 1st to 3rd centuries CE. Although they were first discovered by Europeans in 1615, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that these portraits entered popular awareness. In 1887, an Austrian carpet and textile dealer, Theodor Graf (1840–1903), was in Cairo looking for rare textiles when he was offered several hundred such portraits. He bought them all, and selected about ninety to include in a selling exhibition that travelled throughout Europe and America, including the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

The striking realism of these paintings jarred with the general conception of highly stylised Egyptian art, which both fascinated the public and raised questions as to their authenticity. These doubts were laid to rest after 1888, when the esteemed Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) discovered approximately ninety mummies complete with their portraits at Hawara in the Fayum basin. Whereas the Graf portraits were summarily detached from their mummies with little regard for science, Petrie more carefully documented his finds and thus enabled scholars to begin to situate these works of art in a historical context. The portrait presented here can be traced directly to Petrie’s 1888 expedition.

The use of three-dimensional stylised portrait masks had been part of Egyptian funerary tradition for two thousand years before the Roman conquest. They served as an incorruptible duplicate of the deceased, a repository for their soul. But personalised, two-dimensional portraits such as those found at Hawara and elsewhere only became popular in Egypt during the 1st century CE, under Roman rule. Stylistically, this type of painting finds its source in ancient Greece, not surprising when once considers that the majority of non-Egyptians living in Egypt under Roman rule were descendants of the Greeks who settled there under the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty. It has been suggested that by accenting their Greek heritage, this Greco-Egyptian elite was able to improve its status in the eyes of the Roman rulers of the time – which could also have been a motivation for embracing the practice of commissioning funerary portraits. Since most other examples of Greco-Roman panel painting – a highly regarded form of art in the ancient world – have not survived, mummy portraits, often amazingly well-conserved, are a precious source for art historians of this period.

Mummy with an inserted panel portrait of a youth, ca. 80–100 CE
© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Portrait of a man, ca. 125–50 CE
© Antikensammlung, München

Mummy portrait of a young woman, ca. 100 CE
© J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu

The portraits were painted on thin wooden panels (interestingly, researchers at the British Museum have determined that a large percentage of mummy portraits employ linden/limewood panels, a tree which has never been native to Egypt) or in some cases, directly on the mummy’s wrappings. Both encaustic (wax-based) and tempera techniques seem to have been used, and often the panel was curved for a better fit within the wrappings. It is not known whether the portraits were painted during the lifetime of the deceased, or immediately after their death, nor whether they are true likenesses of the persons depicted – despite Theodor Graf’s somewhat dubious claim that he compared the portraits to the mummies from which they were detached and determined that they were all faithful depictions of the departed – but there does seem to have been a real desire to at least reproduce the facial type of the person depicted. Some standardization is inevitable; in fact, one study at Northwestern University has shown that the features of almost all known mummy portraits can be placed on ten, equally spaced horizontal bands (see ill.).

The portrait presented here was excavated by Petrie in 1888, and entered the collection of Henry Martyn Kennard (1833–1911). Kennard, from a wealthy Welsh iron-producing family, was a noted benefactor of archaeology, and he not only helped finance Petrie’s Hawara expedition, but even worked himself on the dig. Kennard donated extensively to the several museums, including the Ashmolean and British Museum. His private collection was auctioned at Sotheby’s London in 1912, including the present portrait, which was eventually acquired by Zurich textile magnate and respected collector of antiquities Dr Arnold Ruesch (1882–1929). Two other portraits from the same auction are today in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. After Dr Ruesch’s collection was in turn auctioned at Galerie Fischer in Luzern in 1936, the present portrait entered the collection of Dr Julius Maeder of Saint Gallen, in whose family it has remained ever since.

The 21 September auction provides a unique opportunity to acquire a fully documented piece of history, and a fascinating work of portraiture.

You can consult all of the catalogues from our upcoming auctions here:


The division of mummy portraits into ten equally spaced, horizontal bands
Left: Portrait of a Young Man, 193–235 CE
Right: Portrait of a Woman, 90–110 CE.
© Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford
Source: Jevon Thistlewood, Olivia Dill, Marc S. Walton, Andrew Shortland, A Study of the Relative Locations of Facial Features within Mummy Portraits, in: Marie Svoboda, and Caroline R. Cartwright, editors, Mummy Portraits of Roman Egypt: Emerging Research from the APPEAR Project, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2020.

Mummy portrait of a young woman, ca. 100 CE
© Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto