Egypt to sue Christie’s over the repatriation of Tutankhamun bust

Egypt intends to sue Christie’s auction house over last week’s sale of a “stolen” Tutankhamun bust. Despite the country’s protestations, Christie’s London sold the Egyptian artefact for £4.7 million in ‘The Exceptional Sale’ on 4 July.

Created over 3,000 years ago, the bust represents the god Amun with the facial features of Tutankhamun, the famous ancient Pharaoh. The skillfully carved brown quartzite bust was the leading lot in Christie’s mixed-discipline sale.

The Egyptian government believe this bust was looted in the 1970’s from the Temple of Karnak, just north of Luxor.

I don’t think Christie’s have the papers to show it left Egypt legally; it’s impossible. Christie’s has no evidence at all to prove that, and so it should be returned to Egypt”, stated Former Egyptian minister of antiquities, Zahi Hawass.

Christie’s, however, insist the piece had been in Germany since the 1960’s. They suggest that the bust was first in the collection of Prince Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis (1919-2004) and then passed through several owners until it was finally consigned to Christie’s.

In a recent statement the auction house said, “while ancient objects by their nature cannot be traced over millennia, Christie’s has carried out extensive due diligence verifying the provenance of the object as far back as possible.”

Yet the son of Prince Wilhelm does not remember ever seeing the bust in his father’s home, whilst the minor German royal’s niece remarked that he was “not a very art-interested person”.

Egypt’s National Committee for Antiquities Repatriation (NCAR) attempted to stop the auction last week, appealing to the UK Foreign Office and the UN cultural body UNESCO for assistance.

Undeterred by these objections, Christie’s went ahead with the sale, causing Egyptian authorities to instruct a UK law firm to file a civil suit. “They left us with no other option but to go to court to restore our smuggled antiquities“, said Khaled al-Enany, Antiquities Minister for Egypt.

The NCAR also expressed its “deep discontent of the unprofessional way in which the Egyptian artefacts were sold without the provision of the ownership documents and proof that that [sic] the artefacts left Egypt in a legitimate manner“.

This extremely rare intervention by Egypt over the repatriation of an artefact from the UK has caused a minor diplomatic dispute between the two countries and may ultimately impact their cultural relationship.

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