Egypt threatens to sue Christie’s over Tutankhamun sale

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Egypt has called on Interpol to intervene and promised to sue Christie’s auction house in London over the sale of a 3,000-year-old Tutankhamun sculpture.

Egypt authorities argue that the sculpture may have been looted from a Luxor temple.

The 28.5cm brown quartzite head was part of a statue of the ancient god Amun with the facial features of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled Egypt between 1333 and 1323 BC. Similar statues were carved for the Temple of Karnak in the city of Thebes, now Luxor.

The sculpture was sold last week along with 32 other Egyptian artefacts despite Egypt’s fierce objections. Christie’s said it had carried out “extensive due diligence” to verify the provenance of the relic, which was sold for £4.7m.

Egypt said on Tuesday it had asked Interpol to track the statue and other artefacts over alleged missing paperwork, and it criticised British authorities for not supporting its claim.

The Egyptian National Committee for Antiquities Repatriation, which met on Monday, expressed its “deep discontent” at the “unprofessional way in which the Egyptian artefacts were sold without the provision of the ownership documents and proof that the artefacts left Egypt in a legitimate manner”.

The committee, headed by Egypt’s minister of antiquities, Khaled El-Enany, also expressed “deep bewilderment” at the lack of support from the British government, and called on Britain to prohibit the artefacts’ export unless the documents had been produced.

Egypt said it was instructing a British law firm to file a civil lawsuit over the sale and it would ask Interpol to issue a circular to “track down the illegal sale of Egyptian artefacts worldwide”.

The sale last Thursday sparked a protest outside Christie’s. Demonstrators held signs reading “Stop trading in smuggled antiquities”.

Christie’s said the sale was legal and valid and the relic had been “well published and exhibited in the last 30 years”.

It said: “While ancient objects by their nature cannot be traced over millennia. Christie’s clearly carried out extensive due diligence verifying the provenance and legal title, establishing facts of recent ownership. Christie’s would not and do not sell any work where there isn’t clear title of ownership and a thorough understanding of modern provenance.”

It has published a chronology of how the relic changed hands between European art dealers over the past 50 years. It said Germany’s Prince reputedly had it in his collection by the 1960s and it was acquired by an Austrian dealer in 1973/4. The listing says the statue was acquired as part of a lot from a Munich-based dealer, Heinz Herzer.

Last December Italy’s leading court forced the Getty Museum in California to return an ancient Greek statue by the sculptor Lysippos to Italy after the museum paid Herzer almost $4m for it in 1977.