Voronezh, Russia basks in Richter collection glory

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Photo: Artjom Gizun, Voroneži oblasti kunstimuuseum

Probing the insides of 3,000 years old sarcophagus holding Nesipaherentahat, a personal architect and scribe to the Egyptian pharaoh Ramos, Russian historians stumbled upon proof that the art treasure has actually resided in Estonia – out popped a Tartu circus poster dating 108 years back!

The sarcophagus is part of the so-called Richter’s Ancient Egyptian treasures’ collection, once adorning the exhibits at University of Tartu. This year, the collection celebrates its 200th anniversary. Even so, the exhibition opened to celebrate the date cannot be enjoyed in Tartu but in Russia, in a city called Voronezh with over a million inhabitants.

The expansive exhibition was opened at Kramskoy Museum of Fine Arts, in Voronezh, at the beginning of October, to be open till March next year. «We are very proud of this exhibition, as the collection has never been shown to such extent,» says Vladimir Dobromirov, director of the museum.

Of the 125 items of Richter’s collection located in Voronezh, 63 are on display says Mr Dobromirov. (The exhibition also shows some items brought from Moscow museums related to Ancient Egypt). Earlier, the museum has only been able to have 40 items in permanent display.

«Thus far, the collection was out in a manner rather chaotic, but for the 200th anniversary we succeeded in getting the money to expand the exposition,» says Mr Dobromirov. «Now, all vital parts of the collection are out to be seen.»

The small hall

200 years ago, a lad living in Estonia and interested in history, a Baltic-German orientalist born in Vastse-Kuuste Manor called Otto Friedrich von Richter (1791–1816), travelled to Egypt to descend down the Nile far into the South. On his way, he bought up Ancient Egyptian art. After his sudden death at 25 years of age, his father Otto Magnus von Richter gave the entire collection to University of Tartu which, at the time, went by the name of the Imperial Dorpat University. As a thank-you, then Russian emperor Alexander I presented him with a golden tobacco box.

«The importance of the collection lies in the way that it, in its totality, presents an exceptionally vivid and complete imagination of Ancient Egypt,» reads the catalogue on the exhibition now open in Voronezh.

A 100 years ago, another significant event transpired in the life of the collection: together with lots of other University of Tartu assets (about 200 antique ceramic vessels, 40 antique sculptures, 92 paintings who Western Europe dating 16th to 19th centuries, a collection of several thousand coins) got evacuated deep into Russia from WW1 battles: to Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl and Perm. A couple of years later, after the great war was over, the government of Vladimir Lenin carried the bulk of assets taken from Tartu to the repositories of a newly established Voronezh University, 450 kilometres south of Moscow, capital of now Soviet Russia.

Till today, University of Tartu regards the Richter Collection – some items in which are global rarities – as its own. With equal confidence, the museum in Voronezh regards it (along with other assets taken to Russia a century ago) as treasures belonging to Russia and refuses to return it. In the grand catalogue explaining the exhibition, claims by University of Tartu are not mentioned.

Mr Dobromirov amiably welcomes the Estonian journalist and keeps stressing his respect towards Estonia and the University in Tartu. But assets are assets and the issue is no subject to sentimentality, the director is hinting with equal frequency.

In the art museum located in an historic 18th century building surrounded as if by a fortress wall of contemporary concrete high-rises, the space is visibly tight. After the flashy outdoor ads, one feel a bit disappointed that essentially the entire Richter’s collection on display fits into a room of about 50 square metres.

Lion’s share of the treasures purchased by the young Mr Richter are small items. The only larger ones are the Nesipaherentahat sarcophagus, and two details of temple postaments. Among the items on display for the first time, what is most valuable is a wooden sculpture of a god Ptah, standing 43 centimetres tall.  

Also important among the larger items in a wooden cover of the mummy of an Egyptian priestess, but the museum at Voronezh casts doubt on it belonging to Richter’s collection. Namely, claims the catalogue, the cover thus far regarded as part of the collection is actually a gift by Egyptian state to Russian emperor Alexander III in 1894, who in turn ordered it to be given to the university in Tartu. This is what the catalogue says, word by word: «In the Estonian catalogue of the collection, which abounds with unbelievable errors and inaccuracies, the mummy cover plate is attributed to Otto Friedrich von Richter’s collection which is not according to reality.»

Pink slip hello

Each item is meticulously introduced to me by Mr Dobromirov. He is obviously well acquainted with the collection and has poured his heart into the jubilee exhibition. I lost count how many times he told me that each item in the least valuable in Richter’s collection is now on display, and that whatever is not on display are just fragments of items, and items identical with what is out here anyway.

Before the exhibition was opened, Ancient Egypt experts from Moscow got the idea to investigate the insides of the sarcophagus of Nesipaherentahat who lived at the turn of 10th and 9th centuries BC.  Namely, there is no other sarcophagus so well preserved from that era in Russia.

Problematically, the cover of the empty sarcophagus was not to be opened – being too fragile. The solution was sending a «worm» in though a hole, equipped with a video camera.

Mr Dobromirov said the picture inside proved a lot fancier and nicer than hoped for. As seen even on the badly lighted photos he showed me, the interior is pained richly indeed.

On top of that, the scientists became eyewitnesses to the sarcophagus having once had its home in Tartu! For whatever reason, a naughty hand had slipped in – through a slot – a circus show ad in Tartu dating September 1907, on pinkish paper. Or had a human indeed opened up the sarcophagus, 108 years ago, to leave us a greeting?

Mr Dobromirov says the museum hopes to gain financial support to restore the sarcophagus and its cover. Thereafter, people will have the opportunity to admire the insides. Anyway, the sarcophagus has already got a new glass case to it.

«The unique exposition of Richter’s collection managed to stir up a mini Egypt-boom, in Voronezh,» beams Mr Dobromirov. An entire festival was arranged around the exhibition by the museum teaming up with Ancient Egypt investigators from Moscow. «We never expected such success. We had events with 300 people showing up,» said the delighted director.