This month a sculpture of King Tutankhamun, one of only a few portraits of the king in existence, sold at Christie’s for just shy of $6 million.
The sale of the life-sized head was surprising not only because the item sold for so much money, but also because the item is the focus of legal action, protests, and a potential diplomatic dispute. There’s no evidence that this statue of Egypt’s most famous monarch left Egypt legally and many believe that the item was looted. Nevertheless, despite protests from the Egyptian embassy in London, Christie’s went ahead with the sale and allowed both the seller and the buyer to remain anonymous.
In a statement, Christie’s said “We recognize that historic objects can raise complex discussions about the past; yet our role today is to work to continue to provide a transparent, legitimate marketplace upholding the highest standards for the transfer of objects.” Their position is that the sculpture had previously belonged to Prince Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis, who owned the item in the 1960s and ’70s. Apparently, it was subsequently sold, in the early 1970s, to Josef Messina, the owner of a gallery in Vienna.
An investigation by Live Science revealed that there are reasons to doubt this story. Wilhelm’s son and niece told the publication that Wilhelm had no interest in ancient artifacts. “He was not a very art-interested person,” his niece Daria von Thurn und Taxis, told them. Egyptologist Sylvia Schoske, who wrote an article about the sculpture, said that when she studied it, it was owned by an antiquities dealer named Heinz Herzer. As Owen Jarus put it, it’s all rather “sketchy.” Christie’s, for their part, stated that they had verified provenance “with all previous owners of the head.”
The Egyptian government believes that the item was looted from the Karnak Temple, just north of the ancient city of Luxor, sometime after 1970. The date is important because it was around this time that UNESCO created a set of guidelines regarding the preservation of cultural heritage, specifically intended to prevent artifacts from leaving their countries of origin without government permission. Antiquities dealers around the world are aware that they must produce proof of provenance—that is, a trail of ownership going back at least to this date (although ideally to the item’s discovery) if they want to sell across international borders. Egypt, for the record, has older legislation: it has restricted the unauthorized removal of antiquities from within its borders since 1835.
What this means of course is that even if Christie’s story is accurate, conversation should not stop there. As academic Brent Nongbri, author of the book God’s Library, told The Daily Beast, “Even if Christies is being fully truthful, the removal of the artifact from Egypt in the 1960s without proper documentation was in violation of Egyptian law at the time. The current seller and buyer are thus in an awkward position, and so is Christie’s, which facilitates these shady transactions by their tolerance/encouragement of anonymous selling and purchasing. If everything about this sale was completely legitimate, why all the secrecy?”
The reason that Egypt has older legislation is the same as the reason that the King Tut sculpture fetched nearly $6 million at auction: people are fascinated by ancient Egypt and are willing to pay a premium for pieces of her heritage.
The European preoccupation with ancient Egypt began in the Napoleonic period. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt was motivated by a desire to destabilize the British, but when his fleet sank in 1798 at the Battle of the Nile the French rebranded the enterprise as a scientific endeavour. In scientific terms, the French had been successful, it was during this period that they acquired the Rosetta Stone, which they subsequently handed over to the British.
As a result of failed political ambitions, there was a frenzy of interest in Egyptian antiquities. Speaking in 2017, museum curator Tom Hardwick said “Ancient Egypt [was] a way of legitimizing interest [in the country] – by using arguments like: ‘then they built pyramids, now they live in mud huts. It’s clever white people who need to look after this’.” The idea of a lost, technologically sophisticated civilization had a certain romanticism and this was only amplified by myths about the “Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb” and the perceived strangeness of ancient Egyptian religion. Combined together these factors made ancient Egyptian artifacts among the most desirable in the world.
Egyptologist John Darnell, professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Yale University, told me that fascination with Tutankhamun, in particular, is in part due to misconceptions about who he was. “Tutankhamun often appears as the tragic boy king, who died before his reign had really begun,” said Darnell, but “in fact, we know he and his administrators were quite active in the south, and his reign sees an at least partially successful military campaign in the northeast.” It’s difficult to say how much of this was down to his advisers, added Darnell, “but his reign is in fact significant, and his tomb—as fantastically rich as it was in never before seen treasures of imperial Egypt—is not the only reason for which we should remember Tutankhamun.”
It was only in the 1830s, with the awareness of just how many Egyptian artifacts had been exported from the country, that the government stepped in and began to restrict the mining of the country’s non-renewable antiquities reserves. Even then excavations were a financial operation. The renowned archaeologist Flinders Petrie, pioneer of modern archaeological methods, sold futures in order to fund his excavations. The consequences of doing this was that anything he found would be broken up and divided between the museums and collectors who invested in him. The Egypt Exploration Fund, which was founded in the late nineteenth century to “explore, survey, and excavate Egypt” was very explicit about this aspect of their work. Nongbri pointed me to the Secretary's report from 1899-1900, which records that the “distributions” were “a duty which the Committee performs with a full sense of responsibility, especially towards the subscribers in America, with whom we have entered into a formal undertaking that antiquities shall be distributed in strict proportion to subscriptions received.” The discovery of antiquities has had a financial angle for hundreds of years.
It is financial interest that was on display at Christie’s when the Tutankhamun sculpture sold. It remains to be seen if it will be turned over to the new owner. Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of antiquities, suggested that Egypt will almost certainly lodge an official complaint with UNESCO and take legal action in order to repatriate the sculpture. In the meantime, one of the few portraits of King Tutankhamun will remain in the hands of an anonymous private collection.