Purchasing Fine Papyrus Artwork

Tricks of the Trade

Purchasing Fine Papyrus Artwork

by Diaa Khalil

A papyrus plant

Few tourists to Egypt probably leave the country without at least one papyrus painting. It is easy to carry onto airplanes, and relatively inexpensive to purchase. The problem is, do they really leave with true papyrus, or a cheep imitation? Will the paint hold up, or quickly flake off? There are several issues that people should understand when buying papyrus art in Egypt or elsewhere, and here, we attempt to examine what constitutes fine, quality papyrus art.

Thanks to modern technology, when I started school and needed to use paper, I simply went to the store and purchased some note books. It was cheap, but that is obviously not how things have always worked. Not until the Chinese invented pulp paper, and in their interaction with those people did the Arabs also learn the process, did paper become readily available. Though the art of writing was probably first invented in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), and later developed by the Egyptians in the 4th Century BC, initially a good portable medium was not available. The ancients began writing upon stones, bones, the barks of trees and textiles, but with the expanding practice of writing, more practical materials were needed. Thus, from the stalks of the papyrus plant that grew wild in marshy areas of the Nile, the Egyptians developed papyrus paper (see Historical Papyrus).

Papyrus was effectively an Egyptian monopoly and its manufacture was a guarded secret. Indeed, the papyrus plant became a symbol of Lower Egypt, and was regarded as so typically Egyptian that it could be regarded as a metaphor for the entire country.

Modern shop stamps attesting to the authenticity of True Papyrus

Under the best conditions, the stem of the Egyptian papyrus could reach the height of five meters and the thickness of about five centimeters. However, under more normal circumstances, the plants would yield stems of only modest thickness, which were not useful for making writing material. Therefore it was used for making many things, including baskets, ropes and boats, yet from about 3000 BC, its most important use was of course as a writing medium. The earliest surviving example is a blank papyrus roll found in the tomb of Hemaka, an official of the 1st Dynasty (2925-2775 BC) at Saqqara. The quality of manufacture was by this time already so fine that Egyptians must have been making papyrus rolls for some time.

However, with the invention of pulp paper, papyrus slowly disappeared from use, even in Egypt. Because it was no longer a viable commercial product, as farming came to the Nile Delta, its even disappeared from the Egyptian landscape.

Gathering Papyrus in the 1970s at Jacob's Island

Papyrus making was not revived until around 1969. At that time, an Egyptian scientist named Dr. Hassan Ragab reintroduced the papyrus plant to Egypt from the Sudan and started a papyrus plantation near Cairo on Jacob Island. He also had to research the method of production. Unfortunately, the ancient Egyptians left little evidence about the manufacturing process. There are no extant texts or wall paintings and archaeologists have failed to uncover any manufacturing centers. Most of our knowledge about the actual manufacturing process is derived from its description in Pliny the elder's Natural History and modern experimentation. Dr. Ragab finally figured out how it was done, and now papyrus making is back in Egypt after a very long absence.We should note that Dr. Hassan Ragab had a remarkable career with over 42 inventions credited to his name as an engineer. After World War II, he also served time in Washington, DC as Egypt's military attach and later became the first Egyptian ambassador to China, with other ambassadorial posts to Italy and Yugoslavia.

A papyrus press in the act during the 1970s

Today, papyrus is mostly used for decorative art, and though most of it is sold to tourists, it is even somewhat popular in Egyptian homes. However, rarely do we find what might be termed "museum replica" papyrus. We might find an example of an early medical papyrus hanging on the walls of a doctor's office, but for the most part, the extant ancient papyri found in museums and specific papyrus collections is not very decorative or interesting in and of itself. Hence, modern papyri are usually adorned with more colorful subject mater.

Paintings on papyrus material vary considerably. Our personal favorites are accurately portrayed scenes, usually duplicating to a high degree the wall paintings from ancient tombs and temples, as well as from early Christian churches and monasteries when papyrus was still in use. However, paintings on papyrus may include more stylistic themes from ancient Egypt, and we can find examples of almost any subject mater, including modern art.

A complete papyrus manufacturing table including vats for soaking and press

A complete papyrus manufacturing table including vats for soaking and press

There are a number of quality considerations when purchasing papyrus art. Perhaps the two most important issues are the material and the quality of the art itself. By material, we refer to the fact that a considerable amount of "papyrus" purchased in Egypt is not papyrus at all. On the streets of Cairo such as in front of the Eyyptian Antiquities Museum and at other popular tourist attractions, much of the art sold as papyrus is actually made from the banana stalk. Other materials used to simulate papyrus include corn husks, potatoes, eggplant, carrot and a few other materials.

However, there are a few ways to distinguish real papyrus from these forgeries. True papyrus is usually heavier in weight, strong, difficult to tear and somewhat opaque (though certainly not always). There are a number of stores, for example, near the Egyptian museum that do sell true papyrus and before purchasing a sample on the street, it might be advisable to visit one of these shops for comparison. The light colored papyrus has different colors or degrees of brown and one can see the veins clearly in the light. Unpainted sheets can be somewhat crunched though will retain their "memory" and thus return to a flat sheet. Of course, crushing painted papyrus is not a good idea because of the paint itself. Furthermore, reputable papyrus vendors stamp their merchandize with the store stamp to guarantee authenticity of the product. Obviously, one of the best means of making sure that true papyrus is purchased is to buy it from a reputable shop, as opposed to a street vendor.

During ancient times, there were certainly different levels of quality in papyrus paper. The best of the paper was made from the innermost material of the papyrus stalk. However, today most papyrus is of a similar grade, though there can be a few difference, and a number of different styles. In some papyrus manufacturing, the strips are placed alternating vertical and horizontal, while in others, one layer is all vertical and the next is all horizontal. Of these, the second method provides the smoother surface for painters.

Light and dark, or aged papyrus

What is more evident is the various styles of papyrus which are produced. Depending on the final process, some papyri may look very different than other papyri. When papyrus strips are soaked in water for about four to six days and pressed for an additional six days, the sheet will be brighter and the color will be light tan, though some parts of the strips will be darker in color. However, sometimes the strips are left in water for longer than a week, and as long as a month. Then it is pressed for as long as two months. This results in a sheet that takes on a dark brown solid color, which to some, appears more aged. This latter process will cause the edges of the papyri to have a hairy, or fringed appearance as a result of losing some of the natural glue in the strip and the tissue that connects the veins. While the dark papyrus looks perhaps more authentic and is actually a more expensive production technique, the light colored papyrus sheets are stronger. However, this may matter little if the intent is to frame and display the artwork.

In general, we can find all sizes of papyrus paintings. Workers cut the papyrus stalk to the length they wish for the sheet that will be produced, and since talks generally grow today as large as about four to five meters in height, this can produce a fairly large sheet of papyrus paper. They can put as many strips side by side as they please to produce the desired width. Their only limitation may be the size of their press. It must be noted, however, that many tomb and temple paintings are much larger than the more standard sizes of papyrus, and so some artists prefer to work with larger papyri sheets in order to capture the details found on the original artwork.

The entire ceiling of an ancient tomb reproduced on a large scale papyrus

The entire ceiling of an ancient tomb reproduced on a large scale papyrus

True papyrus is usually painted and not printed by machine, as one finds with fake papyrus, "Papyrus" made from other materials is frequently discernable by its cheep appearance, including flaking of the painted surface. Some artists paint true papyrus completely by hand using a light table to ease their job. Others, and especially with when painting on large sheets, may use a silk screen process for drawing the outlines and then finish the rest of the painting by hand. However, it has been mentioned (by one vendor during interviews for this article) that real papyrus may sometimes be printed using an inkjet color printer after smoothing the sheet very well.

Several large scale papyrus paintings reproducing tomb art

Several large scale papyrus paintings reproducing tomb art

Though very little if any true papyrus is machine printed, one can often tell the difference between machine and hand painted papyrus, which can also help distinguish true from fake papyrus. Vendors use printing machines for fast work, and apparently there is "bleeding" that occurs. Hence, with machine work, edges may overlap to some extent. With hand painted papyrus, the paint remains within the lines and does not overlap the outlines of the artwork as does machine printing.

Artist's signatures: Top - Dr. Besheer Abdel-Salam, Middle - Yehya Zakaniya, Bottom - Khedr

Also, all hand painted papyrus is signed by the artist. There are even some artists that are very popular. One of the most famous was Dr. Besheer Abdel-Salam, who appears to have been a popular artist known to almost all reputable papyrus dealers. However, he died a few years ago. Others include an Egyptian named Khedr, who's work can be found in a number of papyrus galleries. Other well known artists include Adel Ghaboor, Abdel-Moniem Waheed, Naser, Adel Eawzy, Yaser Abdel-Moniem, Yehya Zakariya and Monsef. However, we should point out that in some cases, the work of these artists can be somewhat stylistic and may depart considerably from accurate reproduction of authentic pharaonic depictions.

Though real papyrus by nature can accept just about any kind of paint, most artists (and even machine processes) use gouache colors, which are frequently used by other designers and illustrators because of their outstanding brilliance, exceptionally smooth flow, great opacity and covering power. Furthermore, the color of the medium (papyrus) has little effect on this type of paint. For the color gold, the best artwork will employ gold-leaf, but others will utilize a metallic based paint.

Papyrus soaking in water

The cost of "papyrus" artwork can vary considerably; almost infinitely. On the street in Cairo, cheap, normal size papyrus can be had for as little as a couple of dollars (or even less, if one visits the vendors in front of the Egyptian Antiquities Museum near closing time). From there, good true papyrus may range in price to several hundred dollars (USD) when purchasing work by artists such as Dr. Besheer Abdel-Salam or very large papyrus paintings.

Obviously, papyrus is very durable. Thousands of papyrus documents from ancient times may be found in collections today, and certainly this papyrus was not preserved over these many thousands of years under optimal conditions. This material is much, much more lasting than ordinary pulp paper and under fairly good conditions, the papyrus paper itself will not only outlast the purchaser, but probably his future family line. However, colors do fade so ideally papyrus artwork should be framed and for best result, placed behind museum quality glass that provides good protection from harmful UV rays which can cause discoloration of the paint. Glass products such as Tru Vue will not only protect the colors of the paint, but are also non-glare products used extensively in fine picture framing.


last updated: June 8th, 2011