Fake or Facsimile: Part 3: King Tut’s Golden Mask

In August 2014, a repair to reattach the false beard of Tutankhamun’s golden funereal mask was undertaken—in front of tourists[i]—in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum of Antiquities.  The mask is constructed of the highest quality of gold (between 18.4 and 23.5 carat), and weighs 10.23 kilograms[ii] (which is nearly 361 ounces).  Convert this at today’s gold prices and the value of this solid gold (just as raw material) is approaching half a million USD.  As fashioned into the Pharaoh’s death mask over 3 and 1/3 millennia ago, the artisan working and provenance of this Egyptian gold, together with the burial chamber’s spectacular discovery, ensure that this regal adornment has become, quite literally, priceless.

Apparently, during an attempt to correct a lighting issue,[iii] the Pharaonic false beard—which is described as braided blue and gold and “proboscis-like”[iv] (i.e. trunk-like)—was “detached” from its place on Tutankhamun’s chin.  The initial repair was undertaken using “epoxy” glue, and the poor workmanship, in addition to the unsuitable adhesive agent, led to remnants of resin and scratches disturbing the integrity of this world-famous treasure.  At the same time a spatula was used to remove the excess glue.  Subsequently, after eight weeks of professional restoration work (including using the ancient technology of friendly beeswax[v]), Tutankhamun’s mask was returned to its place of glory in December 2015.  The original repair was feared to have caused “irreversible” damage, but the restoration team regarded their efforts as providing a successful recovery.

Subsequently, according to Egyptian journalists—citing Cairo’s Administrative Prosecution (AP)[vi]—it appears there may have been a more determined “cover-up” of the original damage (with not one, but four repair attempts).  Apparently, in its assessment, Cairo’s AP is of the opinion that the scratches remain visible and the damage is “permanent”.

I am not recounting this unhappy narrative in order to exhibit some smug, armchair superiority, but in order to move our discussion forwards in my appreciation of what readers will now know are the apparently cheesy “fake attractions” to which I seem to be so passionately drawn.  And cheesy is the best possible word in this context, since, according to a Google Search of the definition of “cheesy”, the most correct use of this slang adjective is in describing something as “blatantly inauthentic”.[vii]

A travelling exhibition which (proudly) proclaims itself as “blatantly inauthentic” is the European “Tutankhamun—His Tomb and his Treasures” (TGS).[viii]  This is a collection of some 1,200 reproductions[ix] of the 5,398 items[x] that were officially catalogued for nearly a decade (until 1932) after Howard Carter’s first breach of Tutankhamun’s tomb on November 26th, 1922—the date of Howard Carter’s famous exclamation: “Yes, wonderful things!”

This Tutankhamun reconstruction is an awesomely conceived and executed initiative, which, of course, is founded upon the two fundamental principles of museum culture: display and interpretation.  However, the further advantages are so numerous, it is difficult to give a complete inventory.  Let’s start with the most obvious points:

  1. The space can be chosen from civic exhibition sites, locations that exactly conform to the needs of the exhibition; this is the reverse of the usual arrangement, where the exhibition has somehow to be made to fit the available, pre-established museum space.

  2. The hours of operation are not governed by set museum schedules, but by what the organizers determine “the market can bear”; hence more flexibility, both for the curators and the public.

  3. Concomitantly, there is less crowding overall, and a much more attractive employment of the available space, so that there can be both coherent grouping of treasures and sufficient margins between objects.  In this way, the tiny and obscure is not immediately (as in Egyptian art) overwhelmed by the massive and the monumental.

  4. And, finally, the ubiquitous need for photography—with or without flash—does not pose a problem for either the delicacy or the “intellectual property” of the various exhibits, since there is not a single “artifact” in TGS that isn’t a fake, and not one of them is, in the end, of significant material value.

These may seem excessively fastidious observations, especially when we are discussing some of the world’s most famous antiquities, but this is not the case at all.  The chief repository (perhaps now the sole repository)[xi] of Howard Carter’s haul out of the Valley of the Kings (and KV62, as Tutankhamun’s tomb is identified) is Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, which I am extremely unhappy to report is both overcrowded with patrons and stuffed with more treasures per square metre than anyone can possibly imagine (or ever have enough time properly to appreciate).  It cannot be controversial to suggest that Egypt as a country has huge economic issues, and that the recent declines in tourism will not have helped either the finances of the country, or of its highest ranking exhibition space: the Egyptian Museum. 

This depot of Egypt’s pre-eminent treasures is quite simply overstuffed, overcrowded, disorganized, neglected and dusty; and the recent decline in tourist admissions will not have assisted the museum’s work any further.  The Egyptian Museum is also extremely insecure, as the theft of Tutankhamun items on January 28th, 2011[xii] demonstrated; even more worrying was the torching of the headquarters of (the then) President Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, and the adjacent 14-story government building, both in the vicinity of Tahrir Square alongside the Museum;[xiii] if the fire had spread next door to the Egyptian Museum the consequences would have been catastrophic and irreversible.  It is no coincidence that this looting of the Museum and this torching of the Mubarak Party HQ—together in the Tahrir Square domain—occurred on the very same day.[xiv]

Apparently, some of these concerns are soon to be put to rest.  The long awaited (Giza) Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) is slated to house the entire Tutankhamun collection,[xv] in a purpose-built facility.  However, it is necessary to note that the foundation stone for this immense project was laid by President Mubarak on February 4th, 2002,[xvi] and there have been past announcements of openings both for 2012[xvii] and 2013[xviii]).  The most authoritative prediction (in April 2016) seems to have come from GEM’s General Supervisor, Tarek Tawfik, who confirmed that “the partial opening” of the new Giza Museum in May 2018 will house and display some “4,500” pieces from Tutankhamun’s tomb, and that it will take a visitor at least half a day to digest these famous artifacts.  Supervisor Tawfik then confirmed the oft-repeated claim that, after its full opening in 2020, GEM “will be the largest archaeological museum in the world.”[xix]  It is of particular interest that Supervisor Tawfik also indicated that there has been restoration work undertaken on about 2,000 items of the Tutankhamun inventory.

“Concrete” information is very hard to come by here;[xx] only eight months later (in January 2017), in a follow-up interview with New China’s correspondent Mahmoud Fouly, General Supervisor Tarek Tawfik indicated that “the complete set of King Tut’s discovered artifacts, over 5,000 pieces, will be displayed for the first time” at what Supervisor Tawfik foresees as the GEM’s “soft opening”, now “anticipated in early 2018”.  Furthermore, in this New China report, GEM’s “grand opening” has been pushed forward a further two years, that is to say “before the end of 2022”.[xxi]

These are significant figures: if this twenty-year timeline holds, then the construction of the GEM (at a projected cost of just over $1 Billion USD[xxii]) will equal the time it took to build one of the wonders of the world, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (also known by his Hellenized name of Cheops) at Giza.  Since, however, someone has apparently worked out that in today’s prices, it would have cost $5 Billion USD[xxiii] to complete the great Pyramid at Giza — the 20-year completion of GEM at 1/5 of that cost seems to be a bargain!  Whether this state-of-the-art facility will match the 4,500 year longevity of the Great Pyramid, however, remains to be seen.

Next Time: Replicate & Situate


[i] The Telegraph (London), January 22nd, 2015 (Harriet Alexander): “Curators fear irreversible damage…”

[ii] Nicholas Reeves, “Tutankhamun’s Mask Reconsidered” (pp. 511-526) in Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar Volume 19 (2015), edited by Adela Oppenheim et al.; here pp. 512-513.

[iii] The Telegraph (London), January 24th, 2015 (Joe Shute): “King Tut’s broken beard…”

[iv] The New York Times, December 16th, 2015 (Liam Stack): “Repaired King Tut Mask…”

[v] The Associated Press, December 16th, 2015 (Maram Mazen): “Egypt puts King Tut mask on exhibit…”

[vi] dailynewsegypt.com, January 23rd, 2016: “8 antiquities’ employees referred to trial over damage…”

[vii] Google Search: “define cheesy”: 1st entry offers the (exact) synonyms: “tacky, cheap, tawdry”.

[viii] Actually: “Tutanchamun: Sein Grab und die Schätze” (TGS): a travelling exhibition that claims to have had over 6 million visitors since 2008.

[ix] TGS: Katalogbeilage (2009) zur Austellung (Hamburg), p. 19: “Repliken sind nicht gleich Repliken…”

[x] 2nd edition TGS: Katalog, 2009 (edited by Walter M. Weiss), p. 72

[xi] The significance of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb (designated as KV62) was understood from the beginning; nothing from KV62 was ever supposed to be removed from Egypt.  In that spirit in 2010 the (NY) Metropolitan Museum agreed to return 19 smallish objects (belonging to the KV62 spoils) to the collection of Egypt’s antiquities; among the 19 objects are some magnificent golden nails.  See The New York Times, November 10th, 2010 (Kate Taylor): “Met … to repatriate … Artifacts from King Tut’s Tomb”

[xii] BBC News, Cairo, February 13th, 2011 (Yolande Knell): “Egyptian Museum: Cairo’s Looted Treasure”

[xiii] The Telegraph, May 31st, 2015 (AFP): “Egypt begins demolishing Hosni Mubarak party HQ”

[xiv] thestar.com (Toronto), May 31st, 2015 (Sarah el Deeb): “Mubarak’s party headquarters destroyed…”

[xv] See “About GEM: Overview” on the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) Website: www.gem.gov.eg/ — which speaks of “about 3,500” Tutankhamum artifacts.

[xvi] According to the official GEM Website (as above)—other sources suggest the foundation stone was laid in January, 2002.

[xvii] The (NY) Metropolitan Museum of Art Website: “Press” (November 10th, 2010): “Metropolitan Museum and Egyptian Government … to Recognize Egypt’s Title to 19 Objects…”

[xviii] TheNational.ae (Abu Dhabi): “Business”, July 20th, 2009 (Digby Lidstone): “Egyptian Grand Museum…”

[xix] These declarations are taken from an “exclusive interview” given by GEM General Supervisor Tarek Tawfik in Cairo to xinhaunews (New China), April 23rd, 2016: “The Grand Egyptian Museum…”

[xx] For instance, a Google Search (at the beginning of June 2017) of the “cost” of the Grand Egyptian Museum immediately produces the figure of $795 Million USD; this seems to offer a very precise figure—not rounded up—but its very precision makes it all the more misleading.  There is every reason to estimate that—at the time of writing—this figure should be increased by at least another 25%, as will become clear below.

[xxi] xinhaunews (New China), January 9th, 2017 (Mahmoud Fouly): “Egypt welcomes archeological conservation…”  The 2022 timeline was confirmed by Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation, Sahar Nasr: dailynewsegypt.com, October 24th, 2016 (Hisham Salah): “$460 Million USD loan from Japan to finance construction of Grand Egyptian Museum”

[xxii] In 2016, the Global Construction Review, September 23rd (David Rogers) reported that the “main construction manager” at the GEM site (Waleed Abdel Fattah) recalled the projected 2012 opening would have cost $550 Million USD; that the projected 2015 completion would have come at a cost of $810 Million USD, and his 2016 estimate was that the project will, in the end, run to “around” $1 Billion USD.  This 2016 Global Construction report is provided with a slightly unfortunate headline: “Egypt’s Grand Museum on track…”  Less than a year ago, in an interview with dailynewsegypt.com, General Supervisor Tarek Tawfik confirmed the “over” $1 Billion USD estimate.  July 28th, 2016 (Basma Ragab): “The Grand Egyptian Museum…”

[xxiii] livescience.com, February 22nd, 2012 (Natalie Wolchover): “How much would it cost to build the Great Pyramid Today?”

(Replica) Tut photos by Kara Holm – “The Discovery of King Tut New York” – April 2016

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