Christie’s in London is being pressured to cancel the auction of a statue of Tutankhamun’s head after Egyptian authorities claimed that the bust might have been stolen from the Karnak temple in Luxor.
The 28.5cm-high statue is more than 3,000 years old and “exudes strength and serenity”, according to the Christie’s listing.
Christie’s plan to sell the bust as part of the private Resandro collection, which will be auctioned off in July. Other items include marble heads dating from ancient Rome, a painted wooden Egyptian coffin, and a bronze Egyptian cat statue.
They hope to raise £4 million from the auction, and insist that it is being sold legitimately.
“Ancient objects by their nature cannot be traced over millennia,” said a spokeswoman for Christie’s.
“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.”
They say that the statue was acquired from Heinz Herzer, a Munich-based dealer, in 1985. Prior to that it was acquired by Joseph Messina, an Austrian dealer, in 1973-74. He obtained it from Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis, who reputedly had it in his collection by the 1960s.
“The work has been widely exhibited and published and we have alerted the Egyptian Embassy so they are aware of the sale,” said Christie’s.
“There is a long-standing 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.”
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.”
Dr Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of antiquities, said that the statue looks like it came from Karnak.
He believes 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.”
Egypt introduced a law in 1983 to regulate the ownership of Egyptian antiquities, saying any ancient artefacts discovered in the country are considered state properties “with the exception of antiquities whose ownership or possession was already established at the time this law came into effect.”
Dr Hawass believes that regardless of any laws, Egypt has an “ethical right” to recover the Tutankhamun bust.
“This piece was smuggled out of the country and Christie’s cannot prove otherwise. It’s totally Egypt’s right,” he said.
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.
“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 Dr Abdel-Gawad.
“We will not tolerate or allow anyone to sell Egyptian influence at all.”