The 'Rockefeller' Relief

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The 'Rockefeller' Relief

New Kingdom 1550 - 1077 B.C.
Limestone, polychrome
H: 31.1cm



The New Kingdom period in Egypt is considered the third great era of Egyptian culture and was characterised by 500 years of political stability and economic prosperity. Military campaigns carried out by the Egyptian rulers extended Egypt’s influence in the Near East, and they Pharaohs amassed unimaginable wealth, much of which they lavished on their gods. Although the administrative capital was established in the Delta, Thebes remained a culural and religious centre. Here the pharaohs built their mortuary temples and were buried in massive rock-cut tombs decorated with finely executed paintings or painted reliefs. “The subject is probably a lady in a banqueting scene with an attendant serving the lady. The fragment includes the head and left shoulder of a the lady, her right hand (shown as a left hand) extended, and the smaller right hand and upper right arm of a second figure facing her. This somewhat confusing group of hands represents the interaction of two figures, the lady and a smaller secondary figure. The finely delineated profile of the lady with the well-carved eye is set off by an elaborate headdress. On the top of her head is an ointment cone from which two lotus buds fall to the front. These cones were worn at banquets and gradually melted to suffuse. An earspool of a type usually postdating the Amarna period (1350-1314 B.C.) covers part of the check, and there is a wide upper headband and a narrower lower hairband placed unusually high near the eye level. Part of this area appears to have been reworked. For the lady’s headress, a fairly close parallel, depicted in the opposite direction, exists in a scene from the tomb of Nefer-hotep, during the reign of Ay, the successor to Tutankhamen (see N. de Garis Davies, The Tomb of Neferhotep at Thebes, New York, 1933, Vol. I, pl. III). Scenes of banqueting with the serving girls on a smaller scale are frequently represented in Egyptian art (see Davies, The Tomb of Nakht at Thebes, New York, 1917, pl. XV, and Davies, Private Tombs at Thebes, Oxford, 1957, vol. IV, pl. 6). In front of the lady’s face is the hieroglyphic group mwt, the word for mother or the Goddess Mut, and in the upper right the remains of a text reading either “the good God” or “the good day [holiday]”. Although the interpretation of this scene as a banqueting lady with a serving girl seems likely, an alternative interpretation would be to regard the scene as a lady with a child on her lap, as in the wall painting showing Ken-Amun’s mother as a nurse with the royal child Amenhotep II (Davies, The Tomb of Ken-Amun at Thebes, New York, 1930, vol. I, pl. IX).” - William Kelly Simpson, 1993


R. Ellsworth et al., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Arts of Asia and Neighboring Cultures, New York, 1993, vol III, pp. 368-369, no. 274.
David Aaron Ltd, 2019, No. 1.


With Dikran G. Kelekian (1868-1951), New York.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, New York, acquired from the above, circa 1924-1925.
Estate of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (with a life interest to John D. Rockefeller, Jr.), 1948-1961.
Winthrop Rockefeller, Petit Jean Mountain, Arkansas, 1961-1973.
Estate of Winthrop Rockefeller, 1973-1974.
David Rockefeller, New York, acquired from the above, 1974.
ALR: S00137501, with IADAA Certificate, this item has been checked against the Interpol database

Note on the Provenance

The relief was purchased by David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, from the art dealer Dikran Kelekian (1868-1951) not long before she visited Cairo in 1929. A notable collector of antiquities and ancient Islamic art, Kelekian and his brother established shops in Istanbul, Cairo, Paris, London and New York. Kelekian was known for encouraging contemporary artists, including Matisse, Sargent and Picasso, to take an interest in ancient art. He also sold important works such as the monumental friezes from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud in Mesopotamia to David’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who later gifted them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

‘Junior’ and his wife shared a deep interest in ancient Egypt and had been generous and long-standing supporters of archaeologist Dr. James Henry Breasted’s excavations in Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. In 1928 Breasted invited the Rockefellers to visit the digs they had funded. The couple had never been to Egypt before, and readily accepted. In his memoirs David recalled how, aged 13, he persuaded his parents to take him along on their trip. In January 1929 the family party set sail for Egypt.

During that memorable three-month trip, the party sailed up the Nile with Breasted as their guide, and David rode by camel to Giza, where he climbed the Great Pyramid. It was in the bazaars of Egypt, he wrote in his memoirs, that he first ‘learned to bargain for everything, offering but a fraction of the listed price’.

Four years before the Rockefellers’ trip to Egypt and the Holy Land, Junior had offered $10 million to rebuild the Cairo Museum of Antiquities, but the Egyptian government had refused. ‘Father always suspected it was the result of pressure from the British government,’ reflected David, who recalled visiting the museum in 1929 and being shocked by its dilapidated state. Eventually, the money was used to help found the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem, where the family travelled after Cairo. The museum still exists today.

Archival images indicate that David’s parents kept this relief on a sideboard surrounded by Islamic and Far Eastern ceramics, paintings and bronzes. After Abby’s death, it passed to David’s brother, Winthrop Rockefeller; in 1974, upon Winthrop’s death, David purchased the work from his brother’s estate:

“Mother acquired this eighteenth dynasty bas-relief prior to a trip to Egypt I took with my parents in 1929. Although I had seen it before then, it came to have greater interest for me after that trip, which opened my eyes to a civilization that I had studied in a very rudimentary way in a history course at the Lincoln School. Because the trip left such a lasting impression on me, I was especially pleased to acquire this piece from my brother Winthrop’s estate in 1974” – David Rockefeller, 1993.

After retiring David moved his collection of antiquities, including Greek vases and ancient bronzes, to his New York home. He gave the relief pride of place on his desk in the study.