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Egypt seeks to recover 3,000-year-old King Tut bust from auction

The Egyptian government is seeking ways to try and recover its stolen and smuggled antiquities, namely the statue of Tutankhamun’s head that the London-based Christie’s auction house is planning to put up for sale.

CAIRO — London-based auction house Christie’s is poised to sell a bust of Tutankhamun — whose value is around $5 million — on July 4, despite Cairo’s persistent legal and diplomatic efforts to prevent it.

But Egyptian sources have not yet lost hope on halting the sale. A source from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “There are negotiations with Christie’s about recovering the antiquities put up for sale. [We] are looking into the documents related to those pieces, namely the statue of Tutankhamun’s head.”

Egypt has made diplomatic demarches to UNESCO, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Christie’s in order to stop the sale of the antiquities and request their return to Egypt, according to a June 10 statement by the Egyptian Embassy in London.

Three days later, Egypt’s General Prosecution issued a memo addressed to the British government to stop the sale of the bust of Tutankhamun and other artifacts from Egypt.

Christie’s, the London-based auction house in question, announced in a statement published June 11 that it expects to sell the Tutankhamun bust, a 3,000-year-old stone sculpture, for no less than $5 million. The statement also said that the statue - as well as a wooden Pharaonic tomb and a statue of an old Egyptian cat - were acquired from Heinz Herzer, a Munich-based dealer, in 1985.

The same statement said that the brown quartzite head of Tutankhamen shows the king as the God Amen, with a full mouth with slightly drooping lower lips and almond-shaped, slanted eyes, with a deep depression between the eyes and eyebrows. Such representations of the God Amen were carved for the temple of Karnak in Upper Egypt and the statue is part of the Resandro Collection, a private collection of Egyptian art.

In a June 15 press statement, Mostafa Waziri, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, a government body affiliated with the Ministry of Antiquities, said the bust had been smuggled out of Egypt after it was stolen from the Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor. He failed, however, to specify when the piece was taken exactly.

In response to Egypt’s request to stop the auction, the British Embassy in Cairo issued a statement June 20, saying, “The United Kingdom recognizes the importance of preserving and protecting Egyptian cultural heritage and has robust legislation and processes in place to protect cultural property.”

It continued, “Christie’s is in direct contact with the Egyptian authorities over the concerns that have been expressed regarding the sale."

Egyptologist and historian Bassam el-Shamaa told Al-Monitor, “The Ministry of Antiquities has been working for years on recovering smuggled Egyptian artifacts, but it is a complicated process due to the differences between the systems of the countries where these artifacts are. This makes retrieving them difficult.”

The Ministry of Antiquities stated in December that it was able to recover 222 pieces smuggled to a number of countries in 2018. Shamaa calls for "a campaign to demand the repatriation of Egyptian artifacts displayed at Christie’s."

He added, "This is to underline the commitment of the Egyptian government and people to preserving their old artifacts."

Tamer Abdel Kader, member of the parliamentary Culture, Media and Antiquities Committee, told Al-Monitor, “The National Committee for the Repatriation of Stolen and Smuggled Antiquities is also following up on the issue. Yet the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have a greater role in solving the issue and recovering the pieces. The committee should disclose to the public what it has achieved so far in terms of repatriating smuggled antiquities.”

The National Committee for the Repatriation of Stolen and Smuggled Antiquities was established in mid-2016 to formulate a strategy and coordinate efforts to recover stolen and smuggled antiquities. It includes representatives from the ministries of justice, foreign affairs, and investment and international cooperation, as well as from the Prosecutor General.

“If faced with obstacles in repatriating the smuggled pieces, the Ministry of Antiquities should resort to soft power — the media and cultural figures — to expose the involved countries standing in the way," Abdel Kader said, adding that the public has taken a stance against the smuggling of Egyptian artifacts.

In a June 15 statement, Osama Haikal, head of the parliamentary Culture, Media and Antiquities Committee, also announced that the Egyptian deputies had appealed to their counterparts in the British House of Commons in order to stop the auction of the Tutankhamun statue. “Selling Egypt’s antiquities is unethical and unacceptable," he said.

This was also stressed by former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, who told Asharq al-Awsat June 12, “Tutankhamun’s statue is the property of Egypt. Even if Christie’s owns it, it is unethical to sell the piece.”

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