Louis Comfort Tiffany had a showman’s knack for combining business with pleasure. In 1913, when he was making Egyptian-inspired jewelry, the Tiffany scion threw an extravagant costume ball for 300 society swells, what The New York Times heralded as an “Egyptian Fête.” Nine years later, the British Egyptologist Howard Carter, with patron Lord Carnarvon at his side, broke the seal of Anubis, the jackal god of the underworld, affixed to the outer chamber of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Carter peered into a sanctum that had been closed off from humanity for 3,200 years. What did he see?, Carnarvon demanded. “Wonderful things,” Carter replied. It was the understatement of the century.
Carter had landed the holy grail of archaeological discovery, the tomb of Tutankhamen. Over time, Egyptian lite has been peddled to the public. Hollywood dished up Egyptian exoticism in the sexy screen goddesses Theda Bara, in 1917, and Elizabeth Taylor, in 1963, in the headline-making film of Cleopatra. And then there was the globe-trotting King Tut museum show of the 1970s. On the centenary of Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s treasure-filled tomb, Sotheby’s will auction some of the finest Egyptian Revival jewelry seen in decades. Before the auction, from November 30 through December 6, the jewels will go on view at the Sotheby’s New York galleries. AIR MAIL spoke with Carol Elkins, senior vice president and senior specialist of the Sotheby’s New York Jewelry department, who explained why the world still goes scarab-wing crazy for all things Egyptian.
rUTH PELTASON: Let’s start with the basics. What is Egyptian Revival?
CAROL ELKINS: When you hit the 19th century, you get all these revival styles. There was already a trend to show jewels of archaeological revival style—you had the Greek, Etruscan, and Roman in response to archaeological finds. Even before Howard Carter, there were constant excavations going on in Egypt, bringing out new material and giving us new information. There was also the opening of the Suez Canal  and other historic events that inspired the jewelry being made.
R.P.: “Egyptomania” is a word I love. Where did that come from?
C.E.: It’s a synthesis of the word “Egypt” with that of the Greek word for “madness.”
R.P.: All those scarabs and lotus flowers, and those falcons! Why does this jewelry have evergreen appeal?
C.E.: Ancient Egyptian culture has been a source of inspiration forever, from religious beliefs to artists’ endeavors through the ages. You see it in the 18th and 19th centuries—the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada and the Louvre really put it together with “Egyptomania,” in 1994. The symbols and forms seem to proliferate in all periods to greater or lesser degrees.
R.P.: Is the auction of this jewelry a major event?
C.E.: Absolutely. And it’s also primarily the timing. At the beginning of the year, I began thinking about the anniversary, 1922 to 2022, and that it would take some time to organize an auction of Egyptian-themed jewelry because the more important pieces aren’t easily found. The jewelry isn’t on the market—it’s mostly in private collections or in museums.
R.P.: Is any of this jewelry what you’d call “rare”?
C.E.: A Lacloche bracelet and earrings from 1925 are rare—they’re fewer in number and hard to find. The Castellani Egyptian micro-mosaic necklace is also rare, and came directly from the personal collection of Alfredo Castellani, when he sold it, in 1930.
R.P.: Did Tiffany & Co. produce many Egyptian Revival pieces?
C.E.: They were fairly limited to the period when Louis Comfort Tiffany had the Egyptian Fête. We have two excellent pieces in the auction—a bracelet and a necklace.
R.P.: Any other shout-outs?
C.E.: There’s the Desert Brooch, designed by F. Walter Lawrence, made by Gustav Manz. The glass is probably Cypriot or later, 600 A.D. The brooch was shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. We have a gold coin of the Egyptian queen Arsinoe II [316–270 B.C.], mounted by Verdura, probably in the 1940s. It’s a beautiful heart-shaped pendant with sapphires all around and comes in its original fitted case. That was a nice coda to bring the Egyptian Revival jewelry up to speed. There’s always something going on with Egyptomania.
“Magnificent Jewels” will be on view at Sotheby’s New York from November 30 through December 6
Ruth Peltason is a New York–based editor, writer, and jewelry authority