Photograph — Financial Times

Egypt is planning to take British auction firm, Christie’s, to court over the sale of a 3000-year-old artefact of Tutankhamun, a brown quartzite head of the young pharaoh who ruled between 1333 and 1323BC. The artefact was sold last Friday to an anonymous buyer for more than £4.7m despite demands from Egypt to halt sales and have the sculpture returned. 

Egypt said it has also called on Interpol to intervene and help track down the sculpture and other artefacts over alleged missing paperwork, which Christie’s has failed to provide. The Egyptian National Committee for Antiquities Repatriation (NCAR) said it is deeply discontent at the unprofessional way in which the Egyptian artefacts were sold without proof of ownership and proof that the artefacts left Egypt in a legitimate manner. 

It criticised the British authorities for not supporting Egypt’s claim to the sculpture and asked that they prohibit the export of the artefacts until the documents are produced. It also implied that the issue at hand may have an impact on cultural relations between countries by referencing the ongoing cooperation between Egypt and the UK in the field of archaeology. 

Khaled El-Enany, Egypt’s minister of antiquities and chair of the NCAR told the BBC that all Egyptian artefacts auctioned at Christie’s will be repatriated. “We will leave no stone unturned until we repatriate the Tutankhamun bust and the other 32 pieces sold by Christie’s. This is a human heritage that should be on public display in its country of origin,” he said.

Christie’s has denied any wrongdoing, saying it carried out “extensive due diligence” to verify the provenance of the statue and had “gone beyond what is required to assure legal title”. The firm said the sale of the Tut was valid and that its existence has been well known for the last 30 years.

“We recognise historic objects can give rise to complex discussions about the past; our role today is to continue to provide a transparent, legitimate marketplace upholding the highest standards for the transfer of objects from one generation of collectors to the next,” a statement said. “Christie’s would not and does not sell any work where there isn’t a clear title of ownership and a thorough understanding of modern provenance.”

In a press release published last month, the auction firm had included a chronology on the sculpture’s history of ownership and how it changed hands between European art dealers in the last 50 years. It said it was acquired from Heinz Herzer, a Munich-based dealer in 1985. Prior to this, it was owned by Joseph Messina, an Austrian dealer who acquired it in 1973-74 from German Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis who had it in his collection in the 1960s.

But, Zahi Hawass, a former antiquities chief told AFP that the Tut appeared to have been stolen from the Temple of Karnak during the 1970s at a time when other artefacts were stolen. And that the information given by Christie’s is false. “They have not shown any legal papers to prove its ownership,” he said.

A spokesperson for the British government said the relevant authorities have been and remain in regular communication with the Egyptian embassy in London. However, it cannot intervene in the matter as Christie’s is a  private business.

Elsewhere on Ventures

Triangle arrow