Selling your neighbour's goods

08 July 2019 | Aaron Wise

Would you sell your neighbour’s goods at a car boot sale? Probably not, but last week Christie’s auction house, despite being told not to by its country of origin, sold a bust of Tutankhamun, the legendary Egyptian pharaoh.

The famous London auction house sold the 3,000-year-old, brown quartzite sculpture for a whopping £4.7million to an anonymous bidder.

The problem is, Zahi Hawass, Egypt's former Minister of Antiquities, had said the piece appeared to have been looted in the 1970s from the Karnak Temple complex, just north of Luxor, and should be returned to its rightful homeland.

Christie’s, however, dismissed this and sold the remarkably preserved bust of the boy pharaoh, who ruled between 1333 and 1323BC, regardless of the warnings. Now, the north African country has approached Interpol and asked them to track down the now-sold artefact.

Denying any wrongdoing, a spokesperson for Christie’s, said: "We recognise that historic objects can raise complex discussions about the past, yet our role today is to work to continue to provide a transparent, legitimate marketplace upholding the highest standards for the transfer of objects.”

Hmmm, I don’t want to get into the playground politics of this issue, but the harrowing fact is that so many historical artefacts owned and sold through auction houses by ‘private collectors’, can be most likely tracked back to being looted from their places of origin through colonisation or invasion.

When a country comes forward and claims an historical item of importance was taken from that country many years ago, should it be returned? Or, is it OK to shrug it off and sell it on if a rich collector has ‘legal ownership’?

I for one love a museum and have spent hours in the British Museum marvelling at artefacts from the distant and ancient world. But should certain items be behind glass or on display? Just look at the Easter Islanders demanding for one of their iconic ‘moai’ head statues to be returned to the island from the British Museum in 2016. They were backed by the Chilean government too, another region that was invaded by an empire…

I suppose if these pieces are preserved to educate future generations that’s plausible to some extent, but in the case of Christie’s, surely they should consider the origins of that artefact and the significant, even emotional connections is has for those from its ancestral home.

Sadly, it’s bad PR in my book. With such pressure from Egypt, a county still working tirelessly to regain hundreds of looted and stolen artefacts by working with both auction houses and international cultural groups, you’d think they would have at least postponed the selling of the bust to let a thorough investigation take place.

I guess it’s true that everyone and everything has its price, regardless of the circumstances. Hopefully, if Egypt is successful in retrieving the sculpture, this could encourage other countries whose ancient treasures have been looted to come forward and take back what’s rightfully theirs.