Next month an exhibition of 150 artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun will arrive in London for the third stop in a ten-city tour that has already broken box-office records in Los Angeles and Paris.
The boy king has captivated western imagination ever since his tomb was discovered in 1922 but, as Egypt’s ministry for antiquities has made clear, this is a farewell tour. Sixty of the objects have never left Egypt before and none ever will again. After the tour ends in 2021, all 5,400 of the artifacts entombed with Tutankhamun more than 3,300 years ago will finally be reunited for the first time since they were discovered in the Valley of the Kings by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. From then on, and rightly so, the only place to see them will be in Egypt at the breathtaking Grand Egyptian Museum, which is due to open next year.
More than five million visitors a year are expected and as well as housing tens of thousands of Egypt’s archaeological treasures, the hope is that the museum will also help reinvigorate the Egyptian economy by enticing back the tourists who were driven away by years of terrorism and revolution.
But the opening next year will also revive the debate about the hundreds of thousands of other ancient Egyptian artifacts languishing in museums around the world, enriching the economies of cities far from Cairo. Far more of Egypt’s heritage is scattered around the world than can be found in the land of its origin. With the opening of the world’s largest archaeological museum, backed by the most sophisticated conservation facilities and expertise, is it not now time for it to be returned?
The retention of the treasures of Tutankhamun represented a rare victory for Egypt at a time when its heritage was being plundered by any wealthy westerner with a taste for antiquities. But the victory was not as complete as it seemed.
In modern times, Egypt has fought a long and only partly successful battle for the return of objects taken under terms created by the very imperialists who stripped the country’s heritage for the benefit of museums in America and Europe, men who included Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon.
By the time the pair stumbled on Tutankhamun, both had already enriched themselves at Egypt’s expense. In the words of a 1978 book that exposed Carter’s somewhat sordid back-story, the former chief inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service was also “a highly successful ‘gentleman dealer’ in Egyptian antiquities” working on commission for collectors such as Carnarvon.
As Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York revealed in his book “Tutankhamun: The Untold Story,” the two men worked in league with the Met, which traded its expertise in the hope of securing some of the Tutankhamun treasures. Between 1917 and 1922 the museum had paid Carter $256,000 for 225 pieces of jewelry and other objects taken from tombs containing the remains of three princesses of the family of Thutmose III.
In the early 20th century Egypt, which had been under British occupation since 1882, was not master of its own heritage. As part of the new entente cordiale between the two old enemies, Britain and France, the British granted the French “exclusive control over all matters concerning antiquities on behalf of the Egyptian government.” As a result, wrote Hoving, anyone “rich and alert enough to find an ‘in’ with the appropriate Frenchman in the Antiquities Service could get an export license“ which is what Carnarvon did.
Three years after his death in 1923, his family “with Carter’s help“ sold his collection of Egyptian antiquities to the Metropolitan Museum for $216,000. Among the hoard were pieces filched from Tutankhamun’s tomb. In 1978 Hoving, director of the museum from 1967 to 1977, revealed in his book that Carnarvon and Carter had secretly divided up some of the treasures from the tomb and that at least 17 objects had “eventually made their way into the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” It was another 22 years before the museum did the right thing, announcing in 2010 that it was repatriating the items that had been taken in defiance of an Egyptian ruling that they should never leave the country.
Egypt’s battle to wrest back control of its heritage piece by piece continues to this day. In 1988 there was an attempt to recover other pieces from Carnarvon’s estate, which his descendants had “rediscovered” in storage at Highclere Castle, the ancestral home in England of the Carnarvon dynasty and now familiar to millions of TV viewers around the world as the fictional Downton Abbey. The family insisted the 300 items had been acquired legally by Carnarvon and Carter in the years leading up to their discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The Egyptian government denied there had been an agreement to allow Carnarvon to keep half of everything he unearthed. The items still form the core of Highclere’s popular Egyptian Exhibition.
In July the Egyptian government announced it was to sue Christie’s, the international auction house, over the $6 million sale of a 3,000-year-old quarzite head of Tutankhamun, whose provenance could be traced back only as far as the 1970s, when Egypt says it was stolen from Karnak. Christie’s insists it “carried out extensive due diligence verifying the provenance and legal title.”
In 2017 the Met spent $4 million on a 2,000-year-old golden sarcophagus but in September this year the museum was forced to repatriate it after it emerged that it had been looted during the Egyptian revolution.
Rising out of the once sacred ground of Giza, within sight of the pyramids west of Cairo and close to the new purpose-built tourist gateway, Sphinx International Airport, the Grand Egyptian Museum is better qualified than any other in the world to house the unrivaled treasures of Egypt’s past. At a time when governments everywhere are recognizing and apologizing for the sins of the past, from slavery to colonialism, the time has surely come for the museums of the world, whose collections are built on the loot of imperialist freebooters, to relinquish the treasures to which they have no moral claim.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.