Copyright 2002

[ January 2nd 2002 ]

The Treasures of Tutankhamen shown at the British Museum, which set a still unbeaten record for attendance figures at a public exhibition (1,694,117), was almost cancelled because a film company threatened to turn into a tomb raider. Foreign Office files deposited in the Public Record Office reveal the Egyptian government sought parliamentary legislation guaranteeing diplomatic immunity to the display of Pharaonic gold artefacts in case an obscure legal action over pirated television film rights was revived.

Unless Whitehall promised financial indemnity, Cairo warned, the funerary objects discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings in 1922 would not be allowed to travel to London. They were insured for more than 9m. "We were on the point of agreeing the text of the inter-governmental accord covering the exhibition when the Egyptian senior legal adviser called...attention to a court order...putting a distraint on Egyptian government property in this country including antiquities," records an internal FCO memo in June 1971.

The Foreign Office attempted to reassure the Egyptian authorities, saying it was unlikely the treasures would be seized by a British court. "After investigation we found the court order had been issued by a Swiss court, although... the plaintiff hoped to take action in the British courts on the basis of the Swiss decision." The claim, it emerged, was for $25m in damages allegedly owed to a film distribution company. A British embassy official in Paris was sent to meet the aggrieved film mogul, Sam Bichara, vice-president of Cinetel International Television.

The legal dispute was so ancient it was nearly mummified. "In 1963," the British diplomat noted, "an agreement was signed with Egyptian TV authorities to supply 5,000 hours of viewing a year. Films were supplied but [Cairo] made only token payments. [The] Egyptians are said to be using the nationalised Kodak laboratories to make copies for sale to other Arab countries."

At one stage, "Cinetel agreed to accept $1m if it was given in 15 days". But the deal was never completed. "Some two weeks later it was found the money had disappeared, presumably into the pockets of one or more of the ministers," the diplomat speculated. Cairo was anxious not to face the claim. Ibrahim Shihata, an Egyptian professor of international law, was dispatched to London to obtain assurances. His first request was for an Act of Parliament but he was told it would take too long.

In the end, the Treasury agreed to indemnify the Treasures of Tutankhamen. A handwritten comment on the last note in the FCO file betrays one official's exasperation: "I think this should prove to be the last hurdle. I certainly hope so."

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