On Thursday at Christie’s King Street salesroom in London, the star of the auction house’s “Exceptional Sale” was the tenth lot: an 11-inch-tall sculpture from Egypt, dated as from the 14th century B.C.E., depicting the god Amen with the features of the ancient kingdom’s most famous ruler, the young king Tutankhamen. Flaunted as a rare treasure—the catalogue contains descriptors such as “the fleshy face with high cheekbones” and “the mouth particularly sensual with thicker upper lip”—it attracted two bidders on the phones with Christie’s specialists, and sold for a with-premium price of £4.7 million ($5.9 million).
But before the sale, protestors gathered outside the auction house’s tony headquarters, angered by the fact Christie’s was selling objects Egyptian officials were claiming to be looted. In June, a former minister of antiquities told The Guardian he believed the sculpture of King Tut was taken from the temple of Karnak in Upper Egypt and sent out of the country in 1970—meaning that it was exported right before UNESCO initiated a new policy to prevent cultural plundering.
And last week, the New York Times quoted the Egyptian ambassador to Britain saying that the sale was “a huge shame.” In a statement, ambassador Tarek Adel added that the auction amounted to “a deep lack of respect to our efforts to stop this happening as well as a total disregard for relevant international legal provisions and conventions.”
Christie’s insisted that the object had a clean provenance, indicating in the catalogue that it was “understood to have been” in the collection of Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis by the 1960s, and then acquired by a gallery in Vienna in 1973 or 1974. In a statement, the auction house said it had “established all the required information covering recent ownership and gone beyond what is required to assure legal title.” Christie’s added that the King Tut head “is not, and has not been, the subject of a claim, nor has it been previously flagged as an object of concern, despite being well known and exhibited publicly.”