Christie’s Intractability on Tutankhamun Statue Lays Bare Auction Houses’ Greed

Christie’s decision to defy widespread protests to sell a 3,000-year-old bust of King Tutankhamun to a secret buyer fits neatly with auction houses’ history of putting financial gain above transparency. It has also illustrated that auction houses, in addition to the museums which have more frequently been the subject of debate, are part of the ecosystem of profiteers keeping valuable treasures in the West—and throwing a wrench in emerging economies’ tourism industries.

The sale has thrown Christie’s in hot water legally—Cairo, which believes that the $6 million statues was stolen from the temple at Karnak and smuggled out of the country, is now suing the auction house and has even enlisted Interpol’s help in tracking down the bust. It’s only the latest in a series of courtroom dramas which have badly tarnished the reputations of the world’s leading auction houses.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s mutual history of controversy

Throughout the 1990s, Christie’s and its arch-rival Sotheby’s operated a secret price-fixing cartel: collusion going right to the top of both luxury firms and swindling dealers and collectors out of massive sums.

More recently, Sotheby’s has been dragged into what’s been dubbed the “largest art fraud in history.” Billionaire art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev, who is suing his former dealer—Swiss freeport magnate Yves Bouvier—in jurisdictions around the world for purportedly overcharging him more than $1 billion for paintings, has also sued Sotheby’s for $380 million. The auction house, he alleges, abetted Bouvier’s fraud by providing the Swiss dealer with falsely inflated estimates for paintings and by lending a “veneer of legitimacy and expertise” to these suspicious valuations.

Sotheby’s tried to get the case thrown out on technical grounds, but a U.S. federal judge recently rejected the auction house’s request and released previously sealed documents. The newly-unveiled documents include Yves Bouvier’s extensive correspondence with Sotheby’s executive Samuel Valette, which sheds a light on the backroom wheeling & dealing that Sotheby’s, whose conduct the court complaint termed “willful, wanton, reckless and intentional,” would likely rather keep under wraps.

The pattern of dubious conduct outlined in the now-public file features everything from apparently fabricated negotiations to problematic transaction histories Valette provided Bouvier with for art he had sold on to Rybolovlev. One such document addressed to “Mr. Confidential Client One Hundred and Thirty-Four,” apparently omitted the 2011 sale of a painting by Henri Matisse, Nu au châle vert, to Yves Bouvier—presumably intentionally, in order to conceal the sum Bouvier had purchased the work for.

Hiding behind lawyers to justify greed

The price-fixing cartel between Sotheby’s and Christie’s was stamped out after Christie’s came forward in exchange for leniency. Their respective recent scandals, however, have shown that they still share norms— from their lack of transparency to their overreliance on purely legal arguments to justify unethical behavior.

Sotheby’s principal defense in the Bouvier case, for example, has been arguing that it was ignorant of the identity of the Swiss dealer’s final client. Meanwhile, Christie’s has banked on a solely legal argument to justify the Tutankhamun sale. It explained that it had carried out “extensive due diligence” and published a chronology allegedly tracing the statue back to the collection of a German prince— apparently unfazed by the fact that the prince’s son and niece swiftly denied he had ever owned the statue.

Colonial legacy casts a long shadow

The callous defense that “Christie’s would not…sell any work where there isn’t the clear title of ownership” also side-lined the thorny history which makes the sale more fraught. Colonialism so enriched the galleries of Western institutions that the British Museum even had to organize free tours to demonstrate that “not everything was looted.”

If not everything, plenty of its masterworks were. In addition to the marbles which Lord Elgin famously tore off the Parthenon, the museum has some 100,000 items from Egypt— including the Rosetta Stone, seized by British soldiers in 1801. For decades, countries have pleaded for the return of these national treasures—both for their tremendous economic and cultural significance and their financial value, which could significantly boost their own economic development.

Thwarting tourism in emerging economies

Western museums and collectors have proffered a number of justifications for holding onto artifacts despite these earnest pleas; one prominent argument is that the items are better and more safely shown in the West. The British Museum, in particular, has touted itself as “a museum of the world for the world.”

It is, more accurately, a museum of the world for the world which can afford to travel to see its collections. As British-Iraqi author Ruqaya Izzidien noted, “How many ordinary Iraqis or Egyptians are able to get a visa to Britain, let alone afford a trip to London? Why must the financial and emotional burden to learn about one’s own cultural history fall upon those who were brutalized by the regimes that now profit from their colonial plunder?”

Egypt, which derives 12% of its GDP from tourism, has built a $1 billion museum in the shadow of the pyramids of Giza to house Egyptian antiquities. The facility includes one of the largest conservation centers in the world. Stymying the claim that “only institutions in the west can preserve the world’s cultural heritage,” these laboratories have already succeeded in repairing a pair of Tutankhamun’s sandals formerly believed hopelessly damaged.

The museum is a lynchpin of Egypt’s plan to perk up tourism which has lagged since the Arab Spring. It’s easy to see how the Benin bronzes, or the Asante Kingdom’s royal regalia from Ghana, could similarly jumpstart the tourism industry in these artifacts’ home countries.

No excuse for Christie’s

Even as the tide of public opinion turns towards returning looted artifacts—polling indicates that British citizens broadly support giving the Parthenon marbles back to Greece, and French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that Paris will start repatriating African art—the British Museum has sidestepped the question by pointing to legislation prohibiting it, a public institution, from divesting its collections.

A privately-owned auction house like Christie’s has no such excuse. Christie’s refusal to even postpone the auction long enough to produce verifiable proof that the bust had come out of Egypt legally speaks to a remarkable disregard for ethics and transparency which unfortunately is par for the course for the high-end auction industry.