Egyptian authorities are trying to stop the auction of a statue of Tutankhamun’s head at Christie’s auction house in London next month after concerns were raised that the bust might have been stolen from the Karnak temple in Luxor.
The statue, a brown quartzite head of the young pharaoh, which portrays him as the ancient god Amun, is expected to raise more than £4m at auction on 4 July.
But Egyptian officials have called on Christie’s to prove the statue left the country legally.
“We will do our best to stop this auction immediately,” said Dr Mostafa Waziri, the head of Egypt’s supreme council for antiquities. “We will talk to the Egyptian foreign ministry and our ambassador in London to do our best to stop it, as we have to check.”
The 28.5cm-high statue is more than 3,000 years old and “exudes strength and serenity”, according to the Christie’s listing. It shows the head of Amun with the “slightly drooping lower lips, and almond-shaped, slanted eyes with a deep depression between the eyes and eyebrows” of Tutankhamun. The listing says similar representations of Amun with Tutankhamun’s facial features were carved for the temple of Karnak in upper Egypt.
Egyptian officials fear the statue was taken from the Karnak temple complex, a vast ancient site in the southern city of Luxor.
The statue “looks like it came from Karnak,” said Dr Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of antiquities. Hawass believes that the statue left Egypt in 1970. “I don’t think Christie’s have the papers to show it left Egypt legally; it’s impossible,” he said. “Christie’s has no evidence at all to prove that, and therefore it should be returned to Egypt.”
Dr Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, the head of the anti-smuggling department at Egypt’s ministry of antiquities, said in a statement that officials were “studying the auction files in preparation for taking the necessary measures”. The ministry also reiterated Egyptian officials’ demand for documents showing proof of ownership.
Egypt has stepped up its fight against the sale of looted antiquities worldwide. Abdel-Gawad’s office often leads the way by monitoring auction sites, whose listings often alert the authorities to the presence of treasures sometimes removed from the country decades earlier.
“If it is proven that any piece is illegally exported, all legal procedures are taken with Interpol, in coordination with the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs in order to ensure its return,” said Abdel-Gawad. “We will not tolerate or allow anyone to sell Egyptian influence at all.”
Christie’s says the statue will be auctioned from the private Resandro collection in July, in a sale that includes marble heads dating from ancient Rome, a painted wooden Egyptian coffin, and a bronze Egyptian cat statue.
“The present lot was acquired from Heinz Herzer, a Munich-based dealer in 1985. Prior to this, Joseph Messina, an Austrian dealer, acquired it in 1973-74 from Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis, who reputedly had it in his collection by the 1960s,” the auction house said.
A spokeswoman for Christie’s defended the sale. “Ancient objects by their nature cannot be traced over millennia,” she said. “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.”
She said the statue was previously widely exhibited, and that Christie’s informed the Egyptian embassy in London before the sale. “There is a longstanding and legitimate market for works of art of the ancient world, in which Christie’s has participated for generations. Christie’s strictly adheres to bilateral treaties and international laws with respect to cultural property and patrimony,” she said.
Waziri said: “Christie’s can say whatever they like. But I’ve seen pictures of the head and I have to check. If we can get better pictures, I can say if it’s similar to the ones in Karnak or not. I can’t say anything until I see the head itself.”