Exhibition of Artifacts from the Tomb of King Tutankhamun Challenged in Egyptian Court - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Exhibition of Artifacts from the Tomb of King Tutankhamun Challenged in Egyptian Court

Exhibition of Artifacts from the Tomb of King Tutankhamun Challenged in Egyptian Court

Antiquities aficionados may be disappointed to hear that an ongoing international exhibition of artifacts from the tomb of King Tutankhamen has become the subject of a legal controversy which could force the exhibition to an abrupt end. Many still remember the first time objects from the tomb of King Tutankhamen (commonly known as King Tut) were exhibited in the U.S., an exhibition during the 1970’s that ran almost three years and drew in over eight million spectators.1 Perhaps attempting to recapture the same zeitgeist, the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities collaborated with the private company Exhibitions International to arrange another blockbuster exhibition in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, now subject to dispute.2

The Exhibition

The tour was planned to run from 2018 to 2024, spanning 10 cities including Los Angeles, Paris, and London, and was expected to bring no small amount of tourism at each stop.3 The exhibition itself is composed of more than 150 artifacts (compared to 53 at the height of the 1972 exhibit), more than 60 of which have never before left Egypt.4 If spectators needed any additional incentive to see the pieces on tour, the secretary general of Egypt’s Ministry of State for Antiquities, Mostafa Waziry, confirmed that once the exhibit concluded, all artifacts would remain in Egypt forever after.5

The Challenge

Egyptian lawyer, Sayed Said, has filed a claim against the Ministry of State for Antiquities alleging that the exhibition violates Egypt’s national cultural heritage laws. 6 Generally, cultural heritage laws are enacted to protect cultural artifacts, such as the ones excavated from King Tut’s tomb, and ensure they are available to enjoy for future generations.7 Egypt, a nation with a rich cultural history and whose artifacts have enjoyed popularity around the world for centuries, has some of the oldest cultural heritage laws in existence.8 For years, Egypt’s Antiquities Protection Law only permitted international exhibition of artifacts as long as they were “not unique” and “exchanged with states, museums, and scientific institutions,” but the law was amended in 2018 to allow Egypt’s Council of Antiquities to approve international artifact loans without restrictions.9. Because the deal between Egypt and Exhibitions International was signed in 2017, Said argues the Ministry violated the law when it lent these “unique” items to a commercial entity.10 In response, the parent company of Exhibitions International, IMG, told reporters that the artifacts are part of a larger series and therefore not unique.11 Famed and controversial Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, the former minister for antiquities who organized the deal, also spoke out saying “these touring artifacts aren’t of any importance” in direct contradiction to earlier promotion for the tour, in which he was quoted “each object is unique.”12

The Impact

The challenge has cast a shadow over more than just the exhibition. Upon completion of the tour in 2024, the works were planned to arrive for permeant exhibition at the new Grand Egyptian Museum.13 Originally slated for completion in 2021, construction of the museum has been subject to multiple delays14 and relies on funding from the exhibition, which has already brought in $20 million for the Egyptian government.15 To ensure these works are preserved for the future, they must be stored in a facility that is equipped to guarantee their protection; where the works will be held if they museum is not ready to receive them in 2024 is an open question.16

  1. Exhibitions of artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun, Wikipedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exhibitions_of_artifacts_from_the_tomb_of_Tutankhamun (last edited Aug. 30, 2020) [https://perma.cc/NN5V-WB9B].

  2. Hannah McGivern, BBC investigation uncovers legal dispute over blockbuster Tutankhamun exhibition, Art Newspaper (Jul. 9, 2020, 13:00 BST) https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/bbc-investigation-uncovers-legal-dispute-over-blockbuster-tutankhamun-exhibition [https://perma.cc/Z2ZN-QWSY].

  3. Eileen Kinsella, King Tut’s Treasures Are Traveling the World for the Last Time, ArtNet (Feb. 22, 2019) https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/king-tut-treasures-coming-to-saatchi-gallery-1472509 [https://perma.cc/ZK4A-WVU2].

  4. See id.

  5. Id.

  6. McGivern, supra note 2.

  7. Amineddoleh & Associates’ Interview about the Controversial King Tut Exhibition, ArtAndIPLawFirm (Jul. 14, 2020) https://www.artandiplawfirm.com/amineddoleh-associates-interview-about-the-controversial-king-tut-exhibition/ [https://perma.cc/J9JQ-3VQF].

  8. Id.

  9. McGivern, supra note 2.

  10. Id.

  11. Sarah Cascone, Egypt May Have Broken Its Own Antiquities Laws by Lending Dozens of King Tut Artifacts to a Touring Blockbuster Show, ArtNet (July 9, 2020), https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/king-tuts-lucrative-tour-may-illegal-1893303 [https://perma.cc/RN5C-D693].

  12. Id.

  13. Id.

  14. Id.; see also Henri Neuendorf, Grand Egyptian Museum Won’t Be Managed by the State, ArtNet (Aug. 26, 2015) https://news.artnet.com/art-world/grand-egyptian-museum-management-327871 [https://perma.cc/G4Y8-AQ4T].

  15. McGivern, supra note 2.

  16. For more information, see the BBC documentary Behind the Mask: Tutankhamun’s Last Tour, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQWVpskwQH8&list=PL439F79F627C5A421&index=2&t=0s.

Lawrence Keating

Lawrence Keating is a third-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law, a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, and President of the Fordham Art Law Society. He holds a B.B.A. in Finance from the College of William & Mary, and a minor in Art & Art History.