5 minutes with... A 3,300-year-old head of Tutankhamen

Antiquities specialist Laetitia Delaloye on a quartzite sculpture of the god Amen — adorned with the naturalistic features of Egypt’s most famous pharoah, Tutankhamen. It realised £4,746,250 in The Exceptional Sale  in London on 4 July

This face is recognisable among a thousand Egyptian royal faces,’ says London Head of Ancient Art & Antiquities, Laetitia Delaloye. The almond-shaped eyes, notably high cheek bones and a top lip that is thicker that the bottom one all indicate that this is unmistakably the famous ‘Boy King’ of ancient Egypt, Tutankhamen.

Just over 11 inches high and carved from brown quartzite  — a hardened sandstone — Tutankhamen (which translates as ‘the living image of Amen’) is portrayed wearing the domed crown of his namesake, the god Amen. ‘Spread throughout the country, statues such as this were the perfect way of having himself associated with a deity and the power it represents,’ explains Delaloye. 

It was therefore essential that the portrait was easily identifiable. ‘The flesh, the eyes, the lips, are extremely naturalistic, there is no stylisation,’ says the specialist, who believes the head would originally have belonged to a standing or seated figure.

A colourised image of a photograph taken by Harry Burton in October 1926 showing the treasury of Tutakhamen’s tomb, with a statue of Anubis on a shrine with pallbearers’ poles. Photo Burton photograph 1169. © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford. Colourised by Dynamichrome

A colourised image of a photograph taken by Harry Burton in October 1926 showing the treasury of Tutakhamen’s tomb, with a statue of Anubis on a shrine with pallbearers’ poles. Photo: Burton photograph 1169. © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford. Colourised by Dynamichrome

Today, Tutankhamen is the most famous of all Egypt’s pharaohs, despite the fact he only ruled for nine years and died before his 20th birthday. British archaeologist Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of his tomb, with its doors tied shut with 3,000-year-old rope and its contents intact, caught the imaginations of people all over the world.

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It is little wonder, then, that so many people have wanted to own this work of art. ‘This piece is so special because when you stand in front of it,’ says Delaloye, ‘you’re just blown away by the fact that a sculptor, over 3,000 years ago, used all his skills to create the most beautiful representation of the king.

‘We are honoured to present this head to auction for the first time in its history,’ she continues. ‘It has been very well known on the market, and has been published and exhibited many times over the past 35 years.’



A fragmentary Egyptian red granite portrait head of Amenhotep III, New Kingdom, 18th dynasty, circa 1390-1353 BC. 9⅝  in (24.4  cm) high. Estimate £700,000-1,000,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale  on 4 July 2019 at Christie’s in London

A fragmentary Egyptian red granite portrait head of Amenhotep III, New Kingdom, 18th dynasty, circa 1390-1353 BC. 9⅝ in (24.4 cm) high. Estimate: £700,000-1,000,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 4 July 2019 at Christie’s in London

Also offered in The Exceptional Sale is a portrait of Tutankhamen’s grandfather, the pharaoh Amenhotep III. Formerly part of the same 1960s Swiss collection, this pink granite head shares many of the same facial features as the head of Tutankhamen, but also contains sections of the straps that once held a false beard in place.