Egypt said it has asked Interpol to help track down a 3,000-year-old sculpture of the famed boy pharaoh Tutankhamun after Christie’s auctioned it off last week despite Cairo’s objections.
The Britain-based auction house sold the brown quartzite head depicting King Tut for more than 4.7 million pounds ($5.9 million).
Egypt’s National Committee for Antiquities Repatriation said in a statement late Monday that it hired a British law firm to file a lawsuit against Christie’s, saying the auction house did not provide documents proving ownership.
Christie’s has denied any wrongdoing, saying it carried out “extensive due diligence” to verify the provenance of the statue and had “gone beyond what is required to assure legal title.”
The committee also criticized British authorities for not supporting its claim to the sculpture.
Egypt’s former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass told AFP last week that the piece appears to have been “stolen” in the 1970s from the Karnak Temple complex of Egypt’s great monuments.
“The owners have given false information,” he said in a telephone interview.
“They have not shown any legal papers to prove its ownership.”
The French-owned British auction house explained that the lot was acquired from the private Resandro Collection of ancient art from a Munich-based dealer in 1985.
It traces its prior origins to the 1973-74 acquisition by another dealer in Austria from the Princely House of Thurn and Taxis in modern-day Germany.
The trail peters out shortly afterwords and little is known to the public about how the statue found its way to Europe.
Tutankhamun is thought to have become a pharaoh at the age of nine and to have died about 10 years later.
His rule would have probably passed without notice were it not for the 1922 discovery by Britain’s Howard Carter of his nearly intact tomb.
The lavish find revived interest in ancient Egypt and set the stage for subsequent battles over ownership of cultural masterpieces unearthed in colonial times.
International conventions and the British government’s own guidance restrict the sale of works that were known to have been stolen or illegally dug up.
The British Museum has been wrangling for decades with Greece over its remarkable room full of marble Parthenon friezes and sculptures.