Cairo battles to stop auction of ‘stolen’ bust
In the millennia since it was sculpted, the quartz bust of Tutankhamun has seen the rise and fall of empires and the ebb and flow of 3000 floods on the Nile. It has survived the end of the pharaohs and the rediscovery of the tomb of the man who gave it his likeness.
Of all the events it has witnessed though, what art historians really want to know is what it saw in the early 1970s. Did it stare implacably from the mantelpiece of an apartment in Vienna, as Christie’s, who are selling the sculpture this week, contend? Or did it instead turn its cold sneer upon looters at the Temple of Karnak, as the Egyptian government, who are trying to block its sale, argues?
Now, the son of the minor German royal, who is listed as its first known owner, has added weight to the Egyptian claims – by saying that he never remembered the bust. Neither, speaking to the website Live Science, did Viktor von Thurn und Taxis think it likely that his father Wilhelm, who was not a rich man, had a priceless artefact he had forgot to mention.
His niece Daria von Thurn und Taxis concurred, telling the website that her uncle had no interest in art or ancient artefacts. He was ‘‘not a very art-interested person’’ she said.
The sculpture is due to be auctioned by Christie’s on Friday for an estimated £4 million (NZ$7.5m). Its listing last month caused a minor diplomatic dispute when Egyptian authorities announced their intention to block its sale.
The work, 28cm high, was made 3000 years ago. Officially, it is a representation of the god Amun, but its facial features are unmistakeably that of Tutankhamun, who reigned from 1333 to 1323BC. Where it has been for most of its intervening life is a mystery but, according to Christie’s, its documented history began again in 1960, when it was known to be in the collection of Prince Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis. Then, passing through several owners, it found its way in 2019 to a London auction house.
But if Wilhelm, a noted member of the Austrian anti-Nazi resistance, really did have the statue, how was it that he continued to live modestly after its supposed sale?
When the auction was announced Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of antiquities, said there was a simple answer – he never had it. ‘‘It seems that this sculpture was looted from Karnak Temple,’’ he said.
‘‘I don’t think Christie’s have the papers to show it left Egypt legally; it’s impossible. Christie’s has no evidence at all to prove that, and so it should be returned to Egypt.’’
Mostafa Waziri, the head of Egypt’s supreme council for antiquities, said he was trying ‘‘to stop this auction’’.
Christie’s said yesterday that the sale was still going ahead, and that it had seen nothing to support the idea that the statue, which has been widely exhibited in Europe in the past decades, was looted.
‘‘While ancient objects by their nature cannot be traced over millennia, Christie’s has carried out extensive due diligence verifying the provenance of the object as far back as possible,’’ said the auctioneers.
‘‘This includes sharing the information gained directly from a previous owner of the work that the head was understood to have been in the Prince Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxi’s Collection in Vienna in the 1960s. Research into the earlier provenance is part of our ongoing commitment to providing as extensive background as possible when we offer objects for sale.’’
The ultimate truth may always lie unknown – locked behind the almond-shaped eyes and shattered visage of Egypt’s boy-king.