Known as the golden boy-king, the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun became important news this month when Christie’s, an auction house in the UK, put a head featuring the boy-king’s facial features on sale on 4 July in London.
Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany asked the National Committee for the Return of Stolen Artefacts to discuss the issue. They announced that the ministry would file a lawsuit against Christie’s and asked Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadek to give authority to the Egyptian Embassy in London in its attempt to halt the sale. The UN cultural agency UNESCO was also asked to intervene.
The head is made of quartzite and represents the god Amon Re with the facial features of Tutankhamun. This type of head came from Karnak, or rather it was stolen from Karnak. One major problem that we are facing with stolen artefacts is that the antiquities authorities in Luxor seldom report stolen objects.
As a result, even in the case of this head of Tutankhamun it is difficult to offer evidence that it was stolen. UK law also does not require that Christie’s should present legal documents to the effect that the object left Egypt legally. Egyptian law before 1983 required anyone taking an object out of Egypt to go to the Egyptian Museum and obtain a certificate saying that the piece was not stolen. Christie’s did not show any evidence that they had a legal document to show that the head of Tutankhamun was not stolen.
At the same time, the auction house said that the head had belonged to German prince Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis (1919-2004) in the 1960s and that he had sold it in 1973 or 1974 to Josef Messina, the owner of the Galerie Kokorian & Co in Vienna.
But according to a report by the website LiveScience, Gudula Walterskirchen, a historian and journalist who knew Wilhelm well, said that he did not have an artefact collection.
Moreover, Sylvia Schoske, director of the Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich in Germany, published the head in a book in Germany (Konzeption der Ausstellung und Katalog Heinz Herzer, an exhibition catalogue).
This was for an exhibition in 1986, but she did not report the event to the Egyptian authorities at that time, who also did not recognise the head of Tutankhamun. Even so, the Munich Museum has a reputation for exhibiting stolen artefacts, as was shown by its exhibiting the coffin of Akhenaton even though it knew that it had been stolen.
The head of Tutankhamun was sold on 4 July for over four million pounds sterling, the equivalent of $5.97 million. The occasion took 10 minutes, and we do not know who bought the head. Unfortunately, it seems to have been some rich person who will now keep the head in his private collection, not allowing the public to see it. I said on many TV channels at the time that this was a black day in the history of Egyptian archaeology.
People all over the world were upset. If the British government lets this object leave the country without looking at the legal papers, then this will also be wrong. Some 18 British archaeological teams are working in Egypt, and though we do not want to punish them because of the actions of Christie’s, some people have argued for just that. These teams are made up of colleagues working at many sites and making major discoveries.
Other people have argued that there should be an embargo on the current Tutankhamun exhibition visiting London in November, but we cannot punish British citizens for the actions of Christie’s or their government.
I recently returned from the US to attend a meeting of the national committee headed by El-Enany. We decided to hire a law firm in London to take action against Christie’s, and this decision was passed on to the Egyptian ambassador in London. Sadek has also asked the international police organisation Interpol to follow up on any sale of Egyptian objects abroad. At the very least, we should see the legal documents to ensure that the objects left Egypt legally.
Meanwhile, Christie’s has done nothing whatsoever to help. They sold the piece, and they damaged history, and the world was outraged at the move. We may not be able to do anything to bring back the head, but those who deal in such statues may do well to beware the curse of Tutankhamun.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tutankhamun on sale