Questions about Mahfouz Archives Up for Auction

UPDATE: Sotheby’s has withdrawn the Mahfouz materials from tomorrow’s auction.  They issued this statement:

“While it is clear that Sotheby’s consignor had purchased the Mahfouz manuscripts from a member of Naguib Mahfouz’s family, other family members have within the last hour issued a challenge to that purchase. Sotheby’s takes title issues very seriously and has, accordingly, withdrawn the papers from sale until this is resolved.”

Image courtesy Sotheby's.

When Sotheby’s announced last week that a “highly significant archive” of materials from Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was scheduled for auction, it sparked considerable interest in Egypt.

Who is selling the great author’s archive? How did the seller obtain these materials, which include family photographs, early manuscripts, late work, and 100 pages of an unpublished novel titled Story of the Sudan? Why didn’t Mahfouz’s immediate family know about the archive?

Leyla Daybelge, of Sotheby’s, said that “The Naguib Mahfouz archive is being sold by a private source in North America and the timing coinciding with the author’s centenary is coincidental.”

The items are scheduled for sale this Thursday, Dec 15, four days after the hundredth anniversary of the author’s birth. Sotheby’s did not identify the seller.

However, they did tweet this afternoon: “@arablit We take provenance seriously+investigated this archive before offering it. It was lawfully purchased from owners close to Mahfouz.”

Egyptian authors and booksellers have expressed dismay about the sale. Novelist Mansoura Ezz Eldin said she hoped that the AUC Press or Egyptian Minister of Culture might intervene and purchase the materials. However, the AUC Press’s Neil Hewison said they lacked funds for the purchase. The archive’s price was set to start around £50,000 – £70,000, much lower than other literary items on sale Dec. 15.

About the price, Daybelge said, “while Sotheby’s is expecting widespread international interest in the sale, it has chosen a competitive estimate to encourage interest from collectors.”

And Mohammed Shoair, who is covering the story for Al Akhbar, said that the Ministry of Culture and Bibliotheca Alexandrina also said they’re not in a position to buy the archives.

Shoair said he has contacted the Mahfouz family, and that they did not know where this material had come from and would attempt to stop the sale.

Publisher and bookseller Karam Youssef said former minister of culture, Emad Abou Ghazy, also has been in touch with the family. Neil Hewison at AUC Press added that the Minister of Foreign Affairs had asked the Egyptian ambassador in London to intervene  and stop the sale. Rehab Bassem and Shoair added that Amr Moussa also had intervened on behalf of the Mahfouzes, who believe the materials were stolen. Update: The Egyptian Minister of Culture has now issued a statement about the government’s attempts to halt this auction. 

Alyn Hine, a PhD candidate at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London, assessed the collection for Sotheby’s. He didn’t have any information about the provenance of the materials, but said, “It’s always hugely exciting to hold in your hands the original writings of any significant author, especially one as highly regarded as Naguib Mahfouz.”

He talked about other manuscripts he’d examined, and added: “The Mahfouz manuscripts have an extra dimension, however, as his sketches of the ‘Dreams’ show how badly his physical faculties were affected after the assassination attempt. Without wanting to sound too sentimental, I thought that you could see the courage and determination of the man in his shaky handwriting. The earlier manuscripts also gave an insight into how he worked, which I found very inspiring.”

About the “Story of the Sudan” draft, Hine said: “To me, I would say that the unpublished ‘Sudan’ draft would be of more interest to scholars rather than readers as I know how frustrating it can be, as a reader, to read something that is incomplete. However, it would depend on what a skilled editor could achieve with the material.”

And, of all the materials, he said, “the ‘Sudan’ story and the ‘Dreams’ manuscripts are the main items in the cache for the reasons I have outlined above. They both demonstrate how a great writer works, albeit in two entirely different ways. I think that someone familiar with Mahfouz’ biography would gain a great deal of insight into how he crafted his literary works by looking at those two manuscripts.”

He added that the “best place for this cache would be in a public library! Wherever it ends up, though, I hope that serious scholars of Mahfouz will be able to gain access to it.”

Rasheed el-Enany put it much more strongly: “I think Mahfouz was once described as Egypt’s fourth pyramid. To extend the metaphor, I’m saying someone has smuggled one of Egypt’s pyramids out of the country and is putting it up for sale. This is criminal.”

Not everyone is as eager for the archives brought back to Egypt.

Blogger and student of 20th century Egyptian history Hussein Omar (@baqdunis) tweeted: “I understand the instinct to ‘repatriate’ what is ‘ours’, but if the point is to make material available 2 scholars or to preserve it… I can think of no institution in egypt that is capable of doing either. auc perhaps. but access” is an issue.

He added that Egypt does not make a proper custodian of its own antiquities: “60 year record would suggest so. the fate of documents kept in egypt’s ‘institutions’ is theft and from thence to pvt”

He would rather see the archive go to “collectors or gulf libraries,” adding “I would rather see papers held where they will survive and where pple can track.”

He said “bibalex has proven disastrous. tragic bt true.” and suggested that “AUC would probably be best option. Wld fit rare books collection mandate.”

See more about the archive on Sotheby’s website.