Art Market

Egypt will sue Christie’s to recover a $6-million sculpture of King Tut.

Wallace Ludel
Jul 9, 2019 3:56PM, via BBC

An Egyptian brown quartzite head of the god Amen with the features of pharaoh King Tutankhamen, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, reign of Tutankhamun, ca. 1333–1323 B.C.E. Courtesy Christie’s.

Despite the controversy surrounding the sale of a 14th century B.C.E. Egyptian sculpture, Christie’s proceeded and sold the sculpture at auction last week for $5.9 million; now the Egyptian government is suing the auction house.

The sculpture stands 11 inches tall and depicts the god Amen with the features of the young King Tutankhamen, or King Tut. Prior to the sale, the Egyptian embassy in London had called for the object’s repatriation. On the day of the sale, protestors gathered outside of Christie’s London headquarters. Egyptian officials claimed the sculpture was looted, and in June a former minister of antiquities told The Guardian he believed it to have been stolen from Upper Egypt’s temple of Karnak in 1970.

Christie’s, however, insisted it had done its due diligence and that the sculpture was of clean provenance. Last month, the auction house told Artsy:

Ancient objects by their nature cannot be traced over millennia. It is hugely important to establish recent ownership and legal right to sell which we have clearly done. We would not offer for sale any object where there was concern over ownership or export. The work has been widely exhibited and published and we have alerted the Egyptian Embassy so they are aware of the sale.

The day of the auction, the Egyptian embassy in London lodged a complaint with the U.K. Foreign Office, which stated:

[In this auction] a number of Egyptian artifacts were sold without heeding Egypt’s legitimate demands over the past few weeks and the steps taken by the two Ministries and UNESCO with Christie's and the British Foreign Office, [this] is a matter that conflicts with the relevant international treaties and conventions as the mentioned auction house has to date not submitted the artifacts’ documentation to the Egyptian side. The matter of the auction being held also ignores the legal assistance requested by the Egyptian authorities from the competent British bodies.

According to the BBC, the Egyptian National Committee for Antiquities Repatriation (NCAR) has since expressed its "deep discontent of the unprofessional way in which the Egyptian artifacts were sold without the provision of the ownership documents and proof that the artifacts left Egypt in a legitimate manner.” The committee has now hired a British law firm to file a civil lawsuit against Christie’s over the sale. Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Enany told the BBC,

They left us with no other option but to go to court to restore our smuggled antiquities. [. . .] We will leave no stone unturned until we repatriate the Tutankhamen bust and the other 32 pieces sold by Christie's. This is human heritage that should be on public display in its country of origin.
Wallace Ludel