Romancing the Stone

As wonders go, the Nobleman is a bit on the small side, no bigger than a cantaloupe and without the dizzying bulk of the pyramids or the Great Sphinx. Carved more than 3,800 years ago in Egypt from a block of hard, brown stone, the sculpture lost its body somewhere along an epic journey that also left it with a chipped nose and a fractured headdress. But what a head it is.

While the vast majority of Egyptian sculptures depict idealized versions of the human figure, this statue is a rare exception, its features more subtle, its appearance more real. Jug-handle ears, a powerful jaw, and a strong, square chin frame the Nobleman’s broad face, which is dominated by high cheekbones and haunted, haunting eyes. His mouth is slightly open, or maybe opening, as if he had something to say but never got out the words. Some look at the Nobleman’s expression and see weariness; others, determination. Those paid to know about these sorts of things see a masterpiece, a work of genius crafted by a sculptor one eminent art historian has declared must have been “the Michelangelo of his time.”

Until now, the only people lucky enough to have seen the Nobleman are a few special-exhibitgoers and the handful of scholars and connoisseurs invited to its former owner’s elegant apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Until this month, that is, when the Nobleman goes on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, which landed the prize from collector Jack Josephson through a transaction that was nearly two decades and several serendipitous turns in the making.

The Nobleman shares its new home in the MFA’s Egyptian large-sculpture gallery with the façade from an ancient temple, a 24-ton gateway, and a perfectly intact representation of a powerful governor’s wife. Rita Freed, the lead curator of the museum’s Egyptian collection, is confident that those imposing neighbors won’t overshadow her new treasure. “You can’t help but be attracted to it from the other side of the room,” says Freed, a spry woman with a high-pitched voice that warbles faintly when she gets excited about an artifact, which is often. “It’s the kind of thing–and you probably shouldn’t print this–that you just want to touch. You just want to run your hands all over it. There’s a sense that there’s so much more in it than the eye would reveal.”

Freed believes, as all the Nobleman’s fans seem to believe, that “one of the things that makes it interesting–well, the main thing that makes it interesting–is that it’s alive. It has real personality. It has a soul.” If that sounds a little crazy, it’s only because you haven’t yet spent time with the Nobleman yourself.

Jack Josephson grew up a world away from gallery openings and art houses in a working-class family in Atlantic City during the years before the arrival of the casinos in all their chintzy glory. He went off to the University of Michigan, spent long hours in a pool hall, occasionally did his civil engineering homework, and finished near the bottom of his class. After graduation, he took a job with a Cold War defense contractor and went to Morocco to help build an air base. “While I was there, I had the opportunity to go to Egypt a couple of times. I was a small-town boy, and it was an eye-popping experience,” says Josephson, who at 74 looks and sounds like a softer, more debonair Charlton Heston.

Even more than the many belly-dancing performances he took in, Josephson was struck by what he saw during visits to the Great Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. “Of course, I was in awe. But I never dreamt that someday I’d be involved in that kind of thing in any way.” In 1956, four years after a bout of dysentery forced him to return from abroad, Josephson, by then married and starting a family, put $5,000 into founding a business that manufactured vinyl wall coverings for hotels and other commercial properties. J. Josephson Incorporated took off–and so it was that its proprietor, through an assault on tasteful interior decorating, gained the means to begin amassing a collection of Egyptian artifacts that won him wide praise for his discerning eye.

Before the next decade was out, Josephson’s annual sales were closing in on $25 million and he had bought his first piece of art, a fragment of a very small and very old sculptured head dating back to at least 2100 B.C. “I hadn’t a clue what I was buying,” he says. “I was dependent on what the dealer told me, and I assumed that the dealer would tell me whatever he wanted me to hear.” Six years after the sale of his business in 1969, Josephson decided to go back to school. He began sitting in on classes at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

As Josephson’s understanding of his expensive avocation grew, so did his reputation as both a promising amateur scholar and an eager consumer. “I got calls all the time from dealers” looking to peddle their latest offerings or buy objects from him, he says. In February 1986, he fielded such a call from a young New York dealer selling off pieces owned by his grandfather-in-law, Swiss collector Ernest Kofler.

Josephson headed to the dealer’s showroom on Madison Avenue accompanied by his chosen guide, a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The dealer had a sculpture resting on a pedestal and covered by a cloth–the full act,” Josephson recalls. When he pulled off the sheet to reveal the Nobleman gazing back at him, Josephson practically swooned.

“Is it as good as I think it is?” he asked.

“Better,” the dealer replied.

Josephson had never bought a major work without first spending time deliberating. But he knew right away he had to have the Nobleman , and he feared that if he hesitated, the next buyer to see it would snatch it up. “I think the dealer expected a long negotiation,” Josephson says. “But when he named the price, I said, ‘I’ll write you a check.'” He declines to divulge the price, saying only that at the time, it was the largest sum ever paid by a private collector for a piece of Egyptian art.

After closing the sale, Josephson ran around the corner to buy a canvas tote bag. He returned for the sculpture, put it in the sack, and walked the few blocks back to his apartment, happily weighed down by his new treasure.

For Josephson, finding the Nobleman in the dealer’s shop was almost as thrilling as digging it out of the sand himself. Because Kofler had allowed few visitors to survey his holdings at his estate in Lucerne, the statue had remained virtually unknown, a virtuoso playing to empty coffeehouses. “It was such an incredible revelation that something like this existed and actually was offered for sale,” Josephson says. “It was really quite startling.” The curator from the Met who’d been with him when he purchased the sculpture asked Josephson to keep it out of sight until she wrote a journal article on his discovery. He agreed, and the Nobleman spent its first few years with Josephson hidden on a shelf in his closet.

When it became clear that the curator wasn’t going to get around to writing that paper, Josephson moved the Nobleman to a prime spot in his living room, where the statue became the focus of the many impromptu salons he hosted. One of Josephson’s repeat guests was Rita Freed, who had just left a position at the University of Memphis to join the MFA. Freed had been fascinated by ancient Egypt since she was in Sunday school, and she’d set about making that passion her career during her days at Wellesley College. She and Josephson met while they were taking the same classes at the Institute of Fine Arts and became fast friends.

As Josephson dissected the Nobleman with Freed and fellow scholars and sat for hours contemplating it on his own, he gained a fuller appreciation of what he had. He pored over the skill with which the sculptor united the left and right profile of the Nobleman’s face to form a truly three-dimensional image, an accomplishment rare for any period of Egyptian art. He found a faint bump on its forehead, a flourish of realism indicating the root of the subject’s large Semitic nose. The sculpture’s stylistic resemblance to a statue of one of Egypt’s most successful pharaohs, Sesostris III, suggested it was likely fashioned in the royal atelier sometime during his reign. But even with the best facilities and apprentices at his disposal, its creator would have been handicapped by equipment inferior to his task. The sculptor who crafted the Nobleman started with a slab of quartzite, a stone hard enough to scratch glass. Unlike the celebrated Renaissance masters–who usually worked with marble, a much softer medium–he shaped the rock not with steel, but with less durable tools cast from copper, then finished the job with the patient, precise use of natural abrasives such as finely powdered sand.

“Brown quartzite is an incredibly hard material, but with the subtleties and undulations of flesh, this looks like it was sculpted in wax,” says G. Max Bernheimer, senior vice president and international antiquities head at Christie’s auction house in New York. “This is the finest piece of portraiture of any period in existence. Of any period. Name something that’s better, taking into account the material it was crafted in.”

Over time, Josephson came to regard the Nobleman as a part of the family. “I had a nickname for him,” he says. “I called him Junior. He was sort of my kid.” It wasn’t until he’d owned the statue for 13 years that, like a fretful father reluctantly allowing his child to go on his first summer teen tour, Josephson finally lent it to an exhibition–and only because the organizer, a trusted acquaintance from Germany, practically begged. By that point, Josephson and Freed were so close that he and his second wife, a former prima ballerina with the Egyptian ballet, insisted Freed stay with them during her visits to New York. (Josephson’s first wife had died in 1987.) “I almost feel like their apartment was a second home,” Freed says. But though she too was smitten with the Nobleman , she didn’t dare broach the question of whether it might someday find its way to the MFA. “I knew how important his pieces were to him,” Freed says. “I wouldn’t have had the courage to ask.”

If someone were to assemble a taxonomy of frustrated shoppers, museum curators would have to rank near the top. By virtue of their job descriptions, they are afflicted with incurable cases of chronic acquisitiveness and credit limits rarely generous enough for their needs. Almost never do they obtain a top-shelf item without facing competition that makes the jostling for the latest Murakami handbag seem tame. Curators at museums that have historically had conservative management and sluggish metabolisms, such as the MFA–which brings in more than 1,000 mostly minor new items each year–have an especially tough time scoring standout pieces. Curators of renowned collections like Freed’s have an even tougher time upgrading their holdings, which is why she felt at once delighted and daunted when the MFA’s director, Malcolm Rogers, told her to pick out something nice to celebrate the Egyptian department’s 100th anniversary last year.

Freed has never bid for the MFA at an auction–when trophy items are on the block, dealers in the crowd would likely drive prices beyond the limit set for her by the museum–preferring to use her contacts to arrange quiet, private deals. After she got the go-ahead to pursue a centennial acquisition, she called Josephson to see if he knew of any precious works recently put up for sale. “By the end of the conversation, Jack was suggesting one of his pieces,” Freed says. What he proffered was the head of a female sphinx, his second-finest sculpture after the Nobleman . “I remember telling him that, yes, we’d be thrilled to have it, but he should think about it,” she says. “I wanted to be sure he really wanted to do it, and this wasn’t just a spur-of-the-moment thing.”

Josephson honored Freed’s request, but he had pretty much made up his mind. He had lost the yen for collecting that he’d felt as a younger man–lost it, in fact, right after he reeled in the Nobleman . “After I bought that, everything else paled in comparison,” he says. “It’s like wine: Once you’ve tasted a 1961 Lafleur, the next time you try Manischewitz, it really doesn’t taste so good.” His focus had shifted to researching and writing about Egyptian art–he’d published many articles and several books–and he wanted others to be able to study his most important pieces after he was gone. He felt they belonged in museums–why not make that happen now? He told Freed that he was sticking to his decision and offered to write off the portion of the sphinx head’s value that the MFA couldn’t afford.

“It was the first time I’d really let go of something from my collection,” he says. “That sort of opened the floodgates.” As word got out that Josephson was getting rid of his holdings, he fielded a barrage of proposals from prospective buyers, many of whom, not surprisingly, were after the Nobleman . A pair of heavyweight dealers pooled their resources and presented him with what he will only say was a “very substantial” offer. The ruling family of Qatar, having already purchased several objects from Josephson, sent an emissary halfway around the world to sweeten its pitch for the coveted statue. “I was under great pressure from the Qataris,” he says. “And for them, money was no object.” Though Josephson had already all but settled on a different new home for the Nobleman , he was willing to consider those suitors if Freed–or, more likely, her bosses–dithered.

“It was not a foregone conclusion that the statue would go to Boston,” says Ste- phen Harvey, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. “There’s no question that this acquisition represents a major coup for the MFA.”

During her tenure at the MFA, Freed has missed out on an exquisite piece of ornamented pottery and watched an eighteenth-dynasty chair slip away because the museum failed to make money available fast enough. She’s also had to overcome an ingrained tendency to figuratively settle for coach rather than shell out for first class. “Some trustees are still not used to striving for great pieces,” Freed says. To make a successful play for the Nobleman , she needed to convince the 27 members of the acquisitions committee that it would be worth the splurge.

Fortunately for Freed, she had an ally in Rogers, who is credited with (and occasionally criticized for) shaking much of the stodginess out of the MFA in his nine years at its helm. He’d seen the Nobleman a few years earlier while dropping in on Josephson at Freed’s request; although it lay far outside his bailiwick of classical portraits, he was nonetheless besotted. The Nobleman would fill a gap in the MFA’s Middle Kingdom holdings, the weakest part of its collection. It fit the bigger-is-better approach Rogers was espousing for the museum’s acquisitions strategy. It also wasn’t out of the MFA’s price range–at least, not entirely–thanks to $4 million the Egyptian department is set to receive from philanthropist Stanford Calderwood if it raises an equivalent amount over three years. “I’m not an Egyptologist, but I love beautiful things, and I really wanted to get it for Rita and her department,” Rogers says. “I’m like the dog that brings back the stick that’s been thrown. I love to make acquisitions possible.”

Working with Katie Getchell, head of the MFA’s curatorial unit, Freed and Rogers tweaked the financial fine print with Josephson and put together a persuasive presentation, complete with PowerPoint slides, for the acquisitions committee. As with all of the museum’s major acquisitions, the goal of their advance work was to make the committee’s support a fait accompli or, if their proposed acquisition seemed destined for rejection, to kill it quietly without ever bringing it up for a formal vote. “From a curatorial ego point of view, I try not to put items on the agenda that aren’t going to get approved,” says Getchell, who adds, “This one was easy.”

Though neither Josephson nor the MFA will divulge the exact amount that changed hands, the Nobleman would have fetched well upwards of $2 million on the open market–and had it gone on the open market, the museum undoubtedly would have been outspent by a private party with deeper pockets and no need to answer to a board of trustees.

After the Nobleman won approval from the trustees, the MFA brought it into its conservation lab for a scrubbing. Inch by inch, technicians removed a layer of lacquer they determined was applied some time in the past 50 to 100 years, when many collectors found it fashionable to cover their pieces with a glossy sheen. Aside from a nerve-racking moment when it appeared that a poultice used to clean the sculpture had peeled off some stone (it hadn’t), the delicate process went smoothly. When the work was finished, the Nobleman looked as close to new as a 3,800-year-old artifact could.

Once the conservation work was complete, the museum, adhering to the terms of its arrangement with Josephson, returned the Nobleman to him for what can only be described as some final quality time. “I’m very happy it’s going to Boston,” he says. “Of course, after I saw it cleaned up, I began to think that maybe I should have kept it here.”

Only 6 or 7 of the approximately 60 pieces of Egyptian art Josephson once owned are left in his apartment, the ghosts of their departed companions visible in the dark patches on the khaki-lined case where he displayed them in his handsomely decorated study. When Freed came last month with workers from the MFA to take the Nobleman away, he gave the sculpture a few soft pats before it was packed into its crate. “Goodbye, sweet prince,” he said.

“When I decided to part with my collection, I was very keen to be sure that at least the major pieces went to the places where I wanted them to go,” Josephson says. “I had feelings about them, and I wanted to be sure they would be properly shown, handled, conserved, and studied. I knew that if I were to pass away with the collection still in my name, it would have gone into the hands of the executors, and it would have been their job to maximize the amount of money it might bring” by putting the items up for auction. “So I just thought it was the right time.” He chose not to leave the works to his three children, he says, because “they’ve never had any particular interest” and “really didn’t know anything” about their inanimate siblings. “You want to be fair, and maybe this isn’t optimal, but in many ways this was the best way to do it.”

Josephson is certain that the Nobleman’s move to Boston won’t dull his attachment to it. He plans to visit when he can. He and Freed are collaborating on a scholarly article about the piece, hoping to understand it more deeply by combining research on the era and area in which it was made with meticulous examinations of the few other pieces like it that have also survived. And while it’s a long shot, the missing body may still turn up somewhere, a find that could reveal the Nobleman’s identity, which customarily would have been inscribed on the statue’s missing lower half.

One thing that will never be known about the piece is its creator’s name. Because Egyptian sculptors didn’t sign their handiwork, the Nobleman’s provenance will forever remain anonymous, a fate its one-time owner has recently been spared. The MFA has decided to rechristen the sculpture. From now on, the Nobleman will be known as the Josephson Head.  

ON VIEW: The Josephson Head is now on exhibit in the Egyptian galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, 617-267-9300, E-MAIL: