Tutankhamun row reveals the vestiges of colonialism

Egypt wants the sculpture returned but it is likely to have been sold into private hands

This image released by Christie's on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, shows a 3,000-year-old stone sculpture of the famed boy pharaoh Tutankhamun at Christie's in London. Egypt is trying to halt the auction of the sculpture of Tutankhamun at Christie's in London. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement late on Monday saying Egyptian authorities demand the auction house provide documents proving the artifact's ownership. (Christie's via AP)
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The subject of cultural heritage is an emotive one, particularly for Egyptians, whose land was the site of one of the oldest civilisations in history. The legacy of the boy prince Tutankhamun continues to fascinate people around the world, more than 3,500 years after he lived and ruled. It is against this backdrop that a row between Egypt and London-based auction house Christie's flared up this week. Last Thursday a 3,000-year-old brown quartzite sculpture of King Tut was sold to a private bidder for £4.7 million ($6m). Incarnations of the pharaoh are extremely rare, with most prized by museums worldwide as being among their top exhibits. Cairo had called for the sale to be postponed, pending an investigation into whether it was stolen. Christie's denies any wrongdoing but for Egyptians, the mask belongs in Egypt as part of its "human heritage that should be on public display in its country of origin".

Museums across Europe house millions of ancient artefacts, denying the majority of people in the country they originated from the chance to see them. Most were seized during an era of colonisation, when European conquerors helped themselves to the treasures of foreign lands. A 2018 report claimed as much as 90 per cent of African art is housed outside the continent. There has been a recent drive to return stolen artefacts; France, for instance, gave back a number of artworks to Benin last year. But many treasures still lie in western institutions, with the argument that they will be better conserved there or that too much time has passed. However, the Christie's dispute brings to the forefront the argument that such antiquities belong at home; a row that is even more pointed as the Tutankhamun head is likely to have been sold into private hands, raising the prospect that it might never be displayed in public again.

Egypt, Greece and Turkey, among others, are increasingly demanding the return of their stolen antiquities. In the past five years, Egypt has recovered more than 1,500 illegally trafficked objects – mostly from Europe – as well as 22,000 coins. The detailed Tutankhamun sculpture is immensely valuable, because of what it tells us about an entrancing and captivating era in civilisation. For that reason alone, it could enrich many people’s lives – if they only had a chance to see it.