A 3,000-year-old quartzite head of Egyptian ‘Boy King’ Tutankhamun was auctioned off for $6 million Thursday in London despite a fierce outcry from Cairo.
Christie’s auction house sold the 28.5-centimetre (11-inch) relic for £4,746,250 ($5,970,000, 5,290,000 euros) at one of its most controversial auctions in years.
No information about the buyer was disclosed.
The famous pharaoh’s finely-chiselled face -- its calm eyes and puffed lips emoting a sense of eternal peace -- came from the private Resandro Collection of ancient art that Christie’s last parcelled off for £3 million in 2016.
But angry Egyptian officials wanted Thursday’s sale halted and the treasure returned.
About a dozen protesters waved Egyptian flags and held up signs reading ‘stop trading in smuggled antiquities’ outside the British auction house’s London sales room.
‘This should not be kept at home. It should be in a museum,’ Egyptian national Magda Sakr told AFP.
‘It is history. It is one of our most famous kings,’ the 50-year-old said.
Egypt’s antiquities ministry said it would hold a special meeting at the start of next week to discuss its next steps in the standoff.
‘The Egyptian government will take all the necessary measures to recover Egyptian antiquities that left Egypt illegally,’ it said in statement.
Former Egyptian antiquities minister Zahi Hawass told AFP by telephone from Cairo that the piece appeared to have been ‘stolen’ in the 1970s from the Karnak Temple complex just north of Luxor. ‘We think it left Egypt after 1970 because in that time other artefacts were stolen from Karnak Temple,’ Hawass said.
The Egyptian foreign ministry had asked the UK Foreign Office and the UN cultural body UNSECO to step in and halt the sale.
But such interventions are rare and made only when there is clear evidence of the item’s legitimate acquisition by the seller being in dispute.
Christie’s argued that Egypt had never before expressed the same level of concern about an item whose existence has been ‘well known and exhibited publicly’ for many years.
‘The object is not, and has not been, the subject of an investigation,’ Christie’s said in a statement to AFP.
The auction house has published a chronology of how the relic changed hands between European art dealers over the past 50 years.
Its oldest attribution from 1973-74 places it in the collection of Prince Wilhelm of Thurn and Taxi in modern-day Germany.
This account’s veracity was called into doubt by a report from the Live Science news site last month suggesting that Wilhelm never owned the piece.
Wilhelm was ‘not a very art-interested person,’ his niece Daria told the news site.
Tutankhamun is thought to have become a pharaoh at the age of nine and to have died about 10 years later.
His rule would have probably passed without notice were it not for the 1922 discovery by Britain’s Howard Carter of his nearly intact tomb.
The lavish find revived interest in ancient Egypt and set the stage for subsequent battles over ownership of cultural masterpieces unearthed in colonial times.
Tutankhamun became commonly known as King Tut and made into the subject of popular songs and films.
International conventions and the British government’s own guidance restrict the sale of works that were known to have been stolen or illegally dug up.
The British Museum has been wrangling for decades with Greece over its remarkable room full of marble Parthenon friezes and sculptures.
Egypt’s own campaign to recover lost art gained momentum after numerous works went missing during the looting that accompanied former president Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power in 2011.
Cairo has managed to regain hundreds of looted and stolen artefacts by working with both auction houses and international cultural groups.
But it was never able to provide evidence for the Tutankhamun bust being illegally obtained.
Christie’s told AFP that it would ‘not sell any work where there isn’t clear title of ownership’.
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