The sale of King Tutankhamun’s 3,000-year-old statue restarts debate on whether ancient artefacts belong to their country of origin

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This is not the first time Egypt has demanded the return of an artefact. Neither is it likely to be the last. Countries world over, including India, have been demanding that artefacts – several of which were looted during the colonial period – be brought back to their countries of origin.
Around 11 inches tall and carved from brown quartzite, when the 3,000-year-old bust of Egyptian god Amen – sculpted with features of the pharaoh Tutankhamun – was sold by Christie’s for £ 4.7 million on July 4, it turned several heads. The sale followed weeks of to and fro between activists and the Egyptian government and the auction house, to which they pleaded to cancel the sale of the relic. The government cited that it was probably stolen from an Egyptian temple during the ’70s. Christie’s, however, went ahead with the sale, issuing details of the provenance, tracing it back to the collection of German aristocrat Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn in the ’60s. It was bought from him by Vienna-based gallerist Josef Messina in 1973 or 1974, reads the detail of the lot. The auction house stated that the relic had never been the subject of an investigation and that it would not have been sold if there were legitimate concerns. The National Committee for Antiquities Repatriation (Egypt), on Monday, discussed the legal measures to be taken by the Egyptian authorities for the same.
This is not the first time Egypt has demanded the return of an artefact. Neither is it likely to be the last. Countries world over, including India, have been demanding that artefacts – several of which were looted during the colonial period – be brought back to their countries of origin. Requests for repatriation have been pouring in from across the world, including Nigeria, Greece, Thailand, Benin and Ethiopia. India’s request for the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the Sultanganj Buddha have been repeatedly rejected by Britain. The country often cites the British Museum Act 1963 which forbids the British Museum from disposing off its holdings.The sale of several articles of historical significance at auctions, however, makes matters more complex. For one, the articles are not owned by public institutions nor are they usually meant for public display. The repatriation negotiations would be vastly different when dealing with private collectors. Moreover, there is also a distinction between when the article was taken out of the country while it was under foreign rule and those smuggled out otherwise.
While in 2018 an auction house in the United Kingdom sold a bronze relic suspected to have been taken from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace in 1860, despite calls from China to withdraw its sale, in 2004, Vijay Mallya famously bought the sword of Mysore King Tipu Sultan at an auction for Rs 1.5 crore. The whereabouts of the sword though aren’t known.
More recently, in March, despite several concerns raised, Berkshire-based Antony Cribb Ltd auctioneers, who specialise in arms and armory related sales, auctioned items from Tipu Sultan’s armory worth £107,000. The highlight was a silver-mounted 20-bore flintlock gun and bayonet that came under the hammer for £60,000. The lot description read: “Unlike other Tipu Sultan guns this one exhibits clear signs of having been badly damaged in its past… rather than being taken directly from the rack after the fall of Seringapatam it appears to have been collected from the battlefield.”
The Indian High Commission in London had been reportedly made aware of the sale by India Pride Project, a group of volunteers “that tracks and brings back India’s stolen heritage”. It was instrumental in the repatriation of a 12th century Buddha statue allegedly stolen from Nalanda in Bihar nearly 60 years last year, and the 11th century Chola statue of a dancing Shiva that was brought back to India from Australia in 2014. “Indian art is in various museums and we have to study their documents and provenances carefully. It is the same for auctions,” stated Anuraag Saxena, co-founder of India Pride Project, in an earlier interview to The Indian Express. He added, “Our history is being illegally smuggled out to private collectors and museums across the world and we want to bring this look back.
(The Indian Express)