Book dating from 594BC fetches highest price at auction dedicated to Egyptian artefacts

A papyrus scroll has been sold for the pharaoh’s ransom of €1.35 million in Monaco this weekend. The auction, which took place at the Monte-Carlo Auction House on Saturday, was exclusively devoted to Egyptian archaeology and artefacts and saw around 200 hundred lots go under the hammer. However, it was the 6th century BC ‘Book of the Dead’ which fetched the highest price as an unnamed bidder added the ancient text to their private collection.

The ‘Book of the Dead’ is an ancient funerary text which was in use throughout Egyptian for approximately one-and-a-half millennia, from around 1550BC to 50BC. It consists of a number of spells, incantations and scenes from Egyptian mythology written onto a scroll of papyrus and was intended to help the deceased pass from this life to the next. There is no official version of the Book of the Dead, with many different editions having been found throughout the years. The one sold in Monaco represents one of the oldest and rarest known pieces, dating from around 594BC.

At 17m in length, the Monte-Carlo ‘Book of the Dead’ has suffered some cosmetic damage at its beginning, but is largely remarkably well-preserved for a text that is over 2,500 years old. It is written in black and red ink on papyrus and contains 192 chapters with 227 vignettes. These depict various scenes from the Egyptian view of the afterlife, such as Osiris’ judgement of the dead and the reed fields of the next world. It has been dated to the Saite period, during which Psamtik II ruled as pharaoh in the 26th dynasty of Egypt.

Its previous owners were a retired couple from the south of France who had obtained the book for their private collection in the 1960s. It was sold on Saturday to a telephone bidder for the non-commission price of €1.35m, despite the fact that its initial valuation had been far higher at between €1.8m and €2m. Still, it was the highest priced lot at the Egyptian-themed auction by some distance; in total, the 200 items on offer fetched a cumulative price of almost €1.6m.