Monday, November 04, 2013

The Millionaire and the Mummies: Theodore Davis's Gilded Age in the Valley of the Kings by John M. Adams

In modern art museums, works of art or antiquity are usually accompanied by plaques identifying pieces, their creators (if known), places of origin, dates, and how the pieces were acquired by the museum. "Gift of" or "bequest" are familiar statements on such signs. In the Egyptian galleries of both Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, many antiquities from tombs in the Valley of the Kings were gifts of the Gilded Age millionaire Theodore Davis. John M. Adams explains how Davis obtained these pieces in The Millionaire and the Mummies: Theodore Davis's Gilded Age in the Valley of the Kings.

If you have read about the politics of archeology, you know that modern nations are rarely willing to part with their antiquities, and Egypt is now very protective of its ancient treasures. Even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Egypt had laws claiming that antiquities belonged to the state and should not leave the country. There were, however, loopholes in the laws, allowing Egyptian officials to give "keepsakes" to the rich Europeans and Americans who sponsored excavations of tombs. Over a fifteen to twenty year period when many tombs were discovered, Theodore Davis was the most active sponsor of Egyptian archeology and received many pieces as gifts of the Egyptian government.

Like many of the philanthropists of his age, Davis made his fortune through unethical means. As a lawyer working for banks and railroads, he saw opportunities to manipulate transactions to his own benefit. His own specialty seemed to be cheating cheaters. Three times he was investigated by Congressional subcommittees, but evidence of his crimes was never strong enough to convict him. He was aided by the perjury of associates and bribes to government officials as well as the fact that his accusers usually had much to hide themselves.

I enjoyed how the author made settings vivid. Iowa City, Iowa (I visited often while my daughter was in college) and New York City (I vacationed there earlier this year) are featured as are locations along the Nile River (where I'd like to go some day). I also enjoyed how Adams mixed stories from various periods of Davis's life to reveal his character gradually.

The Millionaire and the Mummies shows the Gilded Age in a critical light, identifying injustices that have not been forgotten. It also recounts the life of a very complicated man and his unusual family arrangements. It would make an excellent book discussion book.

Adams, John M. The Millionaire and the Mummies: Theodore Davis's Gilded Age in the Valley of the Kings. St. Martin's Press, 2013. 363p. ISBN 9781250026699.

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