Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Our Treasures Abroad, London: Ancient Egyptian coffin lid sold for £12,000 - despite Cairo officials attempting to block auction

The lid of an Egyptian coffin discovered in Britain has sold at auction for £12,000 - despite authorities in Cairo attempting to stop the sale.

Auctioneer Stephen Drake was checking out the contents of a seaside house after the death of the owner when he found the cobweb-covered relic. It was standing upright in a room only accessible through a hole an outside wall, complete with painted face and faded hieroglyphics.

Mr Drake consulted historians at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge who said the sarcophagus cover appeared to date from 330 BC. At the request of the home owners he entered the 6 ft 5in tall Egyptian artefact into an auction. 

But the Ministry of Antiquity in Cairo instructed the Egyptian embassy in London to try to prevent the sale - suggesting it had been 'illegally removed from Egypt.'

An embassy official told The Independent: 'We tried to encourage the auction house to convince the family that we are keen to repatriate it to its country of origin. 'We wanted them to give it up voluntarily but unfortunately they refused.' He added that sellers or owners of Egyptian antiquities 'should have proper provenance and an export licence.'

The embassy official described such items as our treasure, part of our history and our culture', adding: 'This is not a normal commodity; you have to give perspective to the cultural element here and our right to repatriate this.'

The Egyptian Embassy are believed to have reported the proposed sale to Scotland Yard, but it is understood that the police are powerless to act as it is a civil matter. Defending the sale auctioneer Mr Drake said: 'Legally we are allowed to sell it; the vendor wants us to sell it for them, we are acting on their behalf.'

The coffin lid was found in a house, in Bradwell-on-sea, Essex, which was being renovated. It used to belong to big game hunter and journalist Captain William 'Tiger' Sarll who is thought to have found the artefact in Africa and brought it back to Britain.

Experts believe the coffin was made for 'Hor, son of Wenennefer', but there was no sign of the rest of it at the house. Captain Sarll died in 1977 and his wife continued to live in the house until her death in 2005.

Mr Drake, 55, said: 'It really was quite bizarre. I'd been asked to look at the house by relatives of the previous owner, who'd died. 'When I got there the renovation work was fully under way, and a large hole had been smashed in one of the outside walls.

'When I stuck my head through and looked inside, I was surprised to see the coffin lid leaning up against a wall in the corner, covered in dust and cobwebs. 'There was a painted face on it and some hieroglyphics. It was just like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.'

The coffin lid was given an estimated value of between £1,000 and £2,000 - but it sold for £12,000 on Saturday. Capt Sarll's granddaugher Ali Watkins travelled from her home in Devon to watch the sale at Willingham Auctioneers in Cambridgeshire.

She revealed her grandfather had painted its face - and said it needed restoring as it had woodworm. She said: 'He was a great adventurer and travelled the globe. But we don't know the exact history of how it came in his possession.

Captain Sarll (left) was also a war correspondent, photographer and actor
'We didn't know what it was going to go for but it's a good price and the lady who won the bid was very happy and she thought it was going to go for awful lot more. It's going to go to a private museum and I will keep in touch.'

The house also contained another historical relic - a vinyl record of the Eamonn Andrews TV show, This Is Your Life. Ali says a picture of the sarcophagus was featured in a book presented to Capt Sarll when he appeared on the show in 1961.

Capt Sarll was also a war correspondent, photographer and actor. He was well-known for his frock-coat, striped grey trousers, silk hat, patent leather boots, monocle and spats. The new owner of the coffin lid, who asked to remain anonymous, said it will go to a private museum.

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