Egyptian brown quartzite head of the god Amen with the features of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, circa 1333-1323 BC. Photo: Christie’s.

Ancient Egyptian Sculpture Sells for $6 Million at Christie’s Amid Provenance Controversy

Despite accusations of looting and demands for repatriation by Egyptian officials and organizers, Christie’s went ahead with the sale of an ancient Egyptian stone head of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, which an unnamed buyer purchased for $6 million at the auction house’s annual “Exceptional” sale on Thursday night.

Christie’s claims the three-thousand-year-old brown quartzite sculpture is “understood” to have been in the collection of Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis by the 1960s—which, significantly, dates its acquisition to before 1970, when UNESCO instilled an international convention prohibiting the illegal export of such cultural properties. (The eleven-inch sculpture was eventually purchased in 1985 by the private Germany-based Resandro Collection of Egyptian art, which was the seller of the piece this week.)

Egyptian officials have challenged the account provided by Christie’s. The country’s former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass told The Guardian that he believed the sculpture had been looted from the temple of Karnak and continued that if Christie’s could not supply papers proving it had left the country legally, it should be returned. Authorities also objected to about thirty additional ancient artifacts in yesterday’s Christie’s sale.

Around twenty protesters gathered outside Christie’s yesterday evening, chanting: “Egyptian history is not for sale. Stop trading illegal antiquities.” 

Tarek Adel, Egypt’s ambassador to Britain, said in a statement on Wednesday: “The sale of such precious Egyptian artifacts is a huge shame, [and reflects] a deep lack of respect to our efforts to stop this happening as well as a total disregard for relevant international legal provisions and conventions.”

Christie’s has defended its right to sell the work and said in a statement: “Christie’s has clearly carried out extensive due diligence verifying the provenance and legal title of this object. We have established all the required information covering recent ownership and gone beyond what is required to assure legal title.”