Helena Rubinstein built her life and her wealth on beauty, so it should come as no surprise that she was attracted to this stunning Ptolemaic cartonnage funerary mask and it’s related pieces, which we are working on in the Artifact Lab.
Rubinstein was known as a great art collector (she bought pieces by the truckload, according to this article in the New Yorker) and she decorated her many homes with modern art, as well as artwork and antiquities from all over the world (she amassed an especially large collection of African art). When I found out that these cartonnage pieces in our collection had once been in the possession of the Madame, as she preferred to be called, I was hoping that I’d be able to find a photo of them on display in one of her homes.
While I found many photos showing the interior of her homes, I didn’t catch a glimpse of the funerary mask in any of them. And it’s possible that she never had it, or the rest of the cartonnage, on display at all.
Based on letters found in our Archives, I found out that we ended up receiving these pieces as a gift from Mme. Rubinstein through the Carlebach Gallery in New York. The gallery owner, Julius Carlebach, acted as the intermediary for the donation, which was given to the museum while Dr. Rudolf Anthes was Curator of the Egyptian Section, under the directorship of Froelich Rainey. In his letter offering the cartonnage pieces to the museum, Carlebach noted that he was sorry that Madame Rubinstein had no further information about them.
But I did find something interesting in Froelich Rainey’s thank you note to Mme. Rubinstein.
The letter is a little confusing because he refers to the mask as a mummy portrait, but I’m sure he’s talking about the cartonnage. As you can see, he mentions that the lower section would be included in the museum’s television program “What in the World”. “What in the World” was a Peabody Award-winning television program, where Rainey moderated a panel of experts trying to identity artifacts, while viewers were given clues to the answer (it ran for 14 years and by the early 1960s it was one of the oldest programs on television!). The episode featuring the cartonnage aired on May 23, 1953.
Unfortunately, as far as we know, only a few episodes of this show have survived, not including this 1953 episode. Those that we do have are now digitized and on the museum’s YouTube channel (follow this link to view them). Is there any way we might be able to find the one featuring Mme. Rubinstein’s gift? It seems unlikely, but I’d love to think that it is possible.
In the meantime, we’ll be doing our own investigations on these pieces right here in the Artifact Lab, and we’ll report on the blog as we learn more and make decisions on treatment.
Special thanks to Alex Pezzati, our Senior Archivist, for his help in locating these documents.