LEGAL BID OVER
Copyright 2002 www.theguardian.com
[ January 2nd 2002 ]
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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."