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The confiscated king

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Cairo Times | January 12–17, 2002

It was the event that almost wasn’t. Some 30 years ago, an exhibition in London’s British Museum of 45 funerary objects unearthed from King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922—among them the young pharaoh’s glorious solid gold death mask—came close to being cancelled because of Egypt’s worry that creditors would lay claim to the treasures in English court. Egyptian authorities considered pulling out of an agreement to display the artifacts  at the British Museum over concerns they might never make it back to Cairo. 


The behind-the-scenes drama only came to light on New Year’s day 2002, when the UK’s public records of 1971 were made available. “Anything that can be considered to be no longer confidential gets released in the public domain,” explained Gareth Bayley, press attaché at the British embassy. Under Britain’s Public Records Act (1967) most public records, catalogued in the Public Record Office, the national archive of the United Kingdom, are opened 30 years after the date they are filed. 


According to the records, when Egypt inquired whether the exhibits would be immune from seizure while in London, the British Foreign Office found that Egypt owed millions of dollars to several American film distributors for programming sold to state-owned Egyptian television in 1963. Cinetel International, a company registered in Liechtenstein comprising the American film distributors, had secured a court order against Egyptian assets in Switzerland. 


The creditors charged that Egypt not only failed to pay up, but also made pirated copies of the films in nationalized Kodak laboratories and resold them to other Arab countries. After Cinetel launched its court action claiming $25 million, an Egyptian commission was set up to negotiate a settlement and found that the company was owed $19 million. Cinetel agreed to accept a mere $1 million as a final settlement of the dispute, on condition that payment be made within 15 days. An agreement was reached and the sum of $1 million was to be deposited at the Central Bank of Egypt. “Some two weeks later it was found the money had disappeared, presumably into the pockets of one or more of the ministers,” ventured B. H. Wilcox, a British Embassy official in Cairo, in a 1971 correspondence. The matter between the Egyptian government and its creditors remained unresolved. 


While Cinetel’s claim was made in Swiss court, Egypt was worried the Tutankhamun treasures, which for centuries escaped pillage by grave robbers, could be subject to seizure if the film distributors made a claim in English court while the artifacts were on display in London. “Presumably the worry was that the company that was owed the debt could bring a civil court case against the Egyptian government claiming the confiscation of these artifacts as compensation,” said Bayley. “Because the courts are independent of the government, the government can not offer a guarantee.” 


In an all-out effort to secure the exhibit at the British Museum of King Tutankhamun’s 3,300-year-old treasures discovered in the young pharaoh’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, Wilcox met with Cinetel vice-president Sam Bichara in Paris in May 1971. Bichara, uncompromising about his company’s claim, complained to Wilcox that Cairo had not lived up to its end of the contract.


“In 1963, an agreement was signed with Egyptian TV authorities to supply 5,000 hours of viewing a year,” wrote the British diplomat. “Films were supplied but [Egypt] made only token payments.” 


Cairo had valid reservations. Legal action, even if unsuccessful, would still be an international spectacle that the government would rather avoid. Wilcox, in a dispatch from the British Embassy in Cairo, wrote, “The [Egyptian] Minister [of Culture] has started another hare, namely that if a case was brought against the United Arab Republic [of Egypt] in an English court this would be damaging politically, even though the case failed. Egypt’s enemies would be able to make propaganda on the lines that Egypt was so bankrupt that even the Tutankhamun relics were not safe. We are taking the line here that this seems a very small risk and that the Egyptians would be playing into the hands of their enemies if they allowed fear of it to deter them from taking the considerable advantages (both in publicity and foreign exchange) which could accrue from a successful exhibition in London.” 


The British agreed to indemnify the Egyptians against losses through legal action. But legal advisors warned that the concept of sovereign immunity was not recognized in common law and the exhibits were just as open to seizure as individual assets.


Only an act of the British parliament would prevent seizure of the Egyptian antiquities, but the exhibition would need to be delayed until such a parliamentary measure was passed. Egypt did initially demand that the British parliament act to safeguard the collection from seizure, but eventually settled for Britain’s assurances that the treasures would make it safely back to Cairo.


Attracting roughly 1.7 million visitors, King Tutankhamun’s treasures finally made it on display at the British Museum in 1972, 50 years after their discovery by archeologist Howard Carter. The priceless collection later toured the Soviet Union, the United States, Japan and Germany. But in 1982, the People’s Assembly passed a law preventing Tutankhamun’s treasures from leaving Egypt.

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