When Christie’s, the French-owned auction house, announced earlier this month that it would auction a 3,000-year-old stone sculpture of Tutankhamun — the most famous of ancient Egypt’s pharaohs — at a London sale in July, alarm bells rang in Cairo.
Egypt’s antiquities ministry hastened to announce it was seeking to stop the sale until it had investigated the provenance of the brown quartzite statue, the first of its type to come to market since 1985. Known as the Amun Head it is expected to fetch more than $5m, a high price for the antiquities market.
Christie’s is adamant the sale is in order and says it informed the Egyptian authorities of the details of the bust when it published its catalogue. “Christie’s strictly adheres to bilateral treaties and international laws with respect to cultural property and patrimony,” it said. The auction is still scheduled to go ahead as planned.
But sales of antiquities are increasingly sparking disputes over provenance by authorities in countries of origin such as Egypt, Greece and Turkey. They argue that, despite restrictions imposed by international conventions and increased scrutiny by museums and auction houses, illegally acquired pieces still find their way to the art market.
In the past five years, Egypt has managed to recover some 1,500 illegally trafficked objects from European and other countries in addition to more than 22,000 coins. In recent times, many antiquities were looted in the chaos that followed the 2011 revolution that toppled former strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Objects were stolen from institutions including the museums in Cairo and in Mallawi, in Upper Egypt. “There was also an increase in illegal and random excavations at historic sites,” said Shaaban Abdel Gawad, head of the department responsible for retrieving smuggled cultural objects in the antiquities ministry.
The appeal of this stone head lies in its rarity, even among ancient Egyptian objects. Beyond the famed treasures of his pristine tomb, representations of the ill-fated boy king Tutankhamun are thin on the ground — and nearly all are in the care of the world’s great museums. As a prize for a wealthy collector or a national collection, it is hard to imagine a more tantalising prospect.
Cairo regularly queries the provenance of Egyptian antiquities coming up for sale in international markets and demands their return. Exceptions are made for items legally acquired before a 1983 law banned the trade and export of antiquities.
Items returned to Egypt include a 14th century Islamic manuscript at Bonhams, a London auctioneer, which was handed back last year. In 2016, the same house also gave back eight engraved wooden plaques that had been stolen from a Cairo mosque.
“We follow all international auction houses and direct-sales websites on the internet and on social media,” Mr Abdel Gawad said.
He is particularly proud of having retrieved the gilded coffin of Nedjemankh, a priest from the Late Ptolemaic period (150-50 BC), from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Bought by the Met in 2017, the coffin was among the treasures looted from Egypt during the security breakdown after the revolution. The museum handed it back in mid-February with an apology to Egypt.
Maria Miñana, a programme specialist at Unesco, the UN’s cultural organisation, says it is now rare for museums and public institutions to acquire objects with unclear provenance. She points to regulations established by international conventions adopted in 1970 and 1995 which prohibit the illegal export of cultural objects.
However, antiquities that are not on national inventories or Interpol’s database of stolen objects are hard to trace. This is the case for items that have been illegally excavated in conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq and Libya, or even in Egypt — where treasure hunters have a long tradition of digging for antiquities.
“We don’t see that many objects [from conflict zones] coming on the legal art market, but unfortunately we don’t know what is happening on the black market,” she said. “Unscrupulous private collectors keep items bought on the black market in their homes. This is why preventive action such as strong national legislation and trained police and customs are so important.”
Mr Abdel Gawad said he would like to see more countries adopt legislation such as that enacted by Germany in 2016. This requires anyone selling archeological items to have an export licence from the country of origin and to exercise due diligence to check that objects were imported and excavated legally.
But some warn that the increase in acrimonious disputes over antiquity sales could drive the trade further into the private market. “The public scrutiny of a major auction will want to be avoided,” said Laurence Lieberman, a partner at London-based law firm Taylor Wessing. “What is clear is that a market will always exist for trophy assets like antiquities.”
Others argue that the sale of antiquities should be banned altogether. “It needs to be continuously communicated to the west that it is a similar trade to that of blood diamonds,” said Monica Hanna, an Egyptian Egyptologist.
In Egypt gangs use children to descend into illegally dug shafts, she said. In 2017, Italian authorities confirmed reports that Isis in Libya had been pillaging archaeological sites and selling artefacts to crime groups in southern Italy in exchange for weapons.
“The continuous craze of buying antiquities, even legal ones, feeds the illegal market,” she said.
“When people see the huge amounts being paid, they get gold fever, and they look for objects to sell and falsify ownership documents. I think the antiquities trade will soon go out of fashion as collectors in the west realise how unethical it is.”