Wednesday, 28 July 2010

EXCLUSIVE: Lady Meux: the banjo-playing barmaid who became a great collector of Egyptian antiquities

Arrangement in Black No. 5: Lady Meux, 1881, painted by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Oil on canvas, 76 1/2 x 51 1/4 in. (194.3 x 130.2 cm). Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu, USA.
Some time ago I started researching the largely forgotten collection of Egyptian antiquities once owned by Lady Valerie Meux and housed at her home, Theobalds Park, Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire.

On Lady Meux's death in 1910, the British Museum was offered the entire collection just under 2,000 pieces for £2,250 but rejected the deal because of conditions placed on it. The collection was auctioned off in 1911.

The story of the Meux Collection turned out to be a strange tale of a banjo-playing barmaid who became a great collector of Egyptian antiquities, a mummy’s ‘curse’ and death by elephant.

Effectively, most of the collection seems to have vanished, including what was considered the 'star' piece, the 'cursed' mummy and coffin of Nes-Amsu, son of Pa-senedjem-ib-nakht, from Akmim. This set was quite notorious. It had been ‘acquired’ in Egypt by the English journalist/military man/hunter Walter Herbert Ingram. He gave the set to Lady Meux in 1886. Ingram was alter the 'victim of the curse' when he was killed by an elephant.

Where this set is today remains a mystery. I think it was acquired by the American billionaire William Randolph Hearst. His agents were at the Meux sale. They bought another 'star' piece from the collection, the pair Statue of Nebsen and Nebet-ta which is now in the Brooklyn Museum. This piece was actually acquired by Lady Meux on a visit to Egypt.

The Petrie Museum has two small pieces which were once in the Meux Collection.

And recently two pieces from the collection surfaced at auction in New York. In December 2007 at Christie's sold an Egyptian alabaster vase inscribed for Pepi I sold for $91,000. Two years earlier a granite head from a block statue was sold for $102,000 (estimate $35,000-$45,000).

Over the coming weeks I hope to publishing more information about this fascinating woman and Egyptologist who scandalised the society of her day.

Illustration of Nes-Amsu is taken from Some Account of the Collection of Egyptian Antiquities in the Possession of Lady Meux of Theobalds Park, Waltham Cross, by E. A. Wallis Budge, Harrison, London, 1893 and 1896 (second edition).


  1. Thank you Paul for that very intresting article. I look forward to hearing more of this.

    I have an interest in Egyptian collections past and present and have a little experience in trying to find the full history of items and tracing their existence. Its a lot of fun and your report suggests that you have hadd a good degree of success.

    I look forward to the next instalment.


  2. Hi, Stuart. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I think this is a really fascinating story. 'A copy of Some account of the collection of Egyptian antiquities in the possession of Lady Meux, of Theobald's Park, Waltham Cross' came up for auction recently. I bid for it but dropped our at about £200. It went to a museum in the end.

    I have photographs of Lady Meux playing her banjo and one of her in bed, an innocent enough picture these days but one that would have raised eyebrows back then.

    Time is the big problem. Nearly there, though.

  3. Richard W Langdon.22 August 2017 at 07:46

    Lady Meux is my aunty and she was a daughter of a Devonshire butcher William Langdon, my great great grandfather.

  4. Didn’t the Egyptian mummy get shipped to America on the ill-fated Titanic? I wonder if it’s still intact?