A traveling blockbuster exhibition of the treasures of King Tutankhamun, the famous pharaoh boy, may have violated Egyptian laws to protect the ancient world.
In a new documentary, BBC News Arabic examines the legality of the show, considered the largest collection of King Tut's treasures that has ever left Egypt. It was organized with the help of Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities and a controversial figure in the field of archeology.
"Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh" is the work of Exhibitions International, an event company specializing in sports, entertainment and fashion. The show, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of King Tut's tomb discovery, premiered in March 2018 as part of a 10-city tour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. After a stopover in Paris, it was last seen in the Saatchi Gallery in London.
When the exhibition was planned, the Egyptian law on the protection of antiquities permitted the international exhibition of ancient artifacts, provided that they were "not unique" and "were exchanged with states, museums and scientific institutions" – but not with trading companies.
The law was amended in 2018 to allow the Egyptian Antiquities Council full approval of international artifact loans. However, Exhibitions International signed a contract with the government in September 2017 before the law was changed.
An Egyptian lawyer, Sayed Said, has filed suit against the country's Ministry of Antiquities for the exhibition, arguing that the exhibition contains unique artifacts that were unlawfully loaned to a commercial company.
IMG, the parent company of Exhibitions International (and Frieze Art Fair), told the BBC that the artifacts on the King Tut Show were not unique, but part of a series. Hawass says that "these touring artifacts have no meaning," a claim that directly contradicts an advertising quote that he offered for the show in 2017, claiming that "every object is unique."
There are precedents for the closure of international exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts. In 2011, a Cairo court found that the Cleopatra exhibition in Ohio, also organized by Exhibitions International, was illegal and requested that the artifacts be returned. (The Cleopatra show was held before IMG bought Exhibitions International in 2018.)
The London show, which was originally scheduled to run until May 3, 2020, has been closed indefinitely since March. According to Art Newspaper, it won't open again, and subsequent stops on the tour have been suspended indefinitely.
The show attracted 1.4 million visitors in Paris and 580,000 in London, and raised approximately $ 57 million. Visitor numbers for Los Angeles were not available. Entry to Saatchi was £ 37.50 ($ 46), which is usually free.
At the end of the tour in 2024, the 150 artifacts are expected to return to Egypt, where they will be on permanent display in the long-delayed Grand Egyptian Museum near the Giza pyramids, where construction is currently underway. The financially troubled museum is scheduled for completion in 2021 – that is, it will debut without the works of the international exhibition.
The tour show supports the new $ 1 billion museum with contract earnings of at least $ 5 million in each city and rewards paid after 400,000 visitors at each stop. IMG has reportedly paid the Egyptian government $ 20 million to date.
Mostafa Waziry, the secretary general of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities who approved the current show, told the BBC that "exhibitions abroad not only bring economic, but also political and tourist results."
As Chairman of the Council of Antiquities, Hawass previously coordinated the 17-city blockbuster "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" by Exhibitions International, which was on tour between 2004 and 2011 and contained 50 artifacts. (Venues included the Los Angeles County Art Museum, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Chicago Field Museum, and Discovery Times Square in New York.)
King Tut's first international excursion was the famous "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibition, which ran from 1972 to 1981 and triggered an Egyptomania madness. The show, which contained 55 pieces from Tut's grave, became an international sensation, including stops in seven US cities.
The current exhibition includes 60 works that have never left Egyptian soil. King Tut's tomb, the only intact tomb of the Pharaoh, had over 5,000 objects.
John Norman, head of Exhibitions International, told the BBC that he was not concerned about a legal challenge to the show.
"We have legal documents created by the government," he said.
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