American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

June 2011

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One of those never-to-be-forgotten events enabled an American Cultural Affairs Officer to lay claim to Egypt’s most precious artifacts—for a few moments at least. –Ed.

The Day I Owned the King Tut Exhibit

In 1974 I reported to the American Embassy in Cairo as cultural attaché.

A seven-year hiatus in Egyptian-American diplomatic relations, prompted by our support for Israel during the 1967 June War, had drawn to a close. Presidents Richard Nixon and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat opted for rapprochement following the 1973 October War.

Whipsawed by the Watergate scandal at home, Nixon turned to international travel to free himself from the hammering he was enduring in the USA. He came to Egypt in June 1974 and was accorded a hero’s welcome.

Anwar Sadat was impressed by Nixon the statesman. He was also much taken by the presidential helicopter on which they traveled together. Nixon noted Sadat’s admiration in both areas and in a magnanimous gesture tossed him the keys to the chopper.

Sadat responded by honoring Nixon’s request that treasures from the tomb of King Tutankhamen tour America. As cultural attaché, the King Tut follow-up fell to me.

Dr. Gamal Mokhtar, Egypt’s director general of antiquities, was having none of it. I learned this at our first unsettling encounter.
The flinty Mokhtar informed me that he, not President Sadat, managed antiquities. He said that the King Tut treasures would never leave Cairo on his watch. Our meeting was perfunctory. I said little and reported the impasse to the ambassador.

A week went by and Mokhtar invited me to stop by again, likely prompted by a phone call from the president’s office. A flood of mail was pouring into his office from American museums anxious to host King Tut. The surly attitude of the week before was absent.

Gamal Mokhtar
Dr. Gamal Mokhtar

We scanned a grab bag of museum letters. Mokhtar insisted that the exhibit, if it were to happen, should visit no more than five cities. He worried about who would manage and pay for the complex preparations? He said that Egypt had no budget for such an extravagance. I suggested that we meet again in two weeks, noting that in the interim I would seek guidance from the State Department.

I soon had a phone call from Carter Brown, president of The Smithsonian Institution, suggesting that we bring New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art into the conversation. Brown said we needed a world-class player to pull this off. He nominated Tom Hoving, age 35, the flamboyant, entrepreneurial, urbane and controversial director of the Met. Hoving was a marketing expert and a connoisseur. He phoned me the next day to schedule a visit to Cairo.

Thomas Hoving
Thomas Hoving

In his meeting with Mokhtar he explained how a King Tut exhibit could be optimized for everyone’s benefit. Mokhtar, skeptical at first, listened attentively. Hoving was charismatic and punctilious. Much was at stake.

The three of us set off for the gloomy and unkempt Cairo Museum to inspect the Tutankhamun treasures. Hoving knew the exhibit only from the literature. He was dazzled.

Mokhtar lamented that a dearth of tourism dollars had caused Cairo’s museums to grow shabby. Many exhibits had been moved to storage. The museum lacked climate control. Hoving commiserated as he assessed the problems. Pigeons roosted in the rafters, entering through broken glass that also let the weather in.

Hoving registered Mokhtar’s concerns and returned to New York, promising to visit again soon with some folks he wanted Mokhtar to meet.

His next visit brought architects, reproduction specialists, exhibit managers, curators and designers. They threaded their way into Cairo airport with Hoving as pied piper. Their presentations held Mokhtar spellbound. He was learning how world-class museums got things done.

With careful deference, Hoving unveiled a plan. He suggested that the Cairo Museum be professionally cleaned, upgraded, staged and lighted anew by an international team he would assemble to work under Mokhtar’s direction.

He proposed that a range of King Tut items be reproduced to be sold by participating museums. All profits from replica sales and a percentage of ticket sale income would accrue to Egypt for the duration of the tour.

Production costs would be borne by the Metropolitan Museum. Cairo’s contribution would be the exhibit itself. Mokhtar and he would jointly provide oversight. Hoving would be his consultant and would manage all internal arrangements for the U. S. tour.

He predicted that Egypt stood to gain at least $13 million, likely much more. Mokhtar gasped. Soon the project was launched.

Hoving’s reproduction specialists set to work. Dust-free tents were flown in and raised inside the Cairo Museum to fashion molds. A collector’s edition of Queen Selket in gold was to be the piece de resistance; the replica team knew she had to be perfect to seal the deal. Completed molds were dispatched to New York.

Soon Hoving returned with crates of finished replicas. He arranged to present Queen Selket to President Sadat, but first there would be an unveiling for Mokhtar. It was an epiphany. Mokhtar groped for words. He carefully examined each replica, astonished at their perfection. But suddenly he stiffened in his chair, with a grave expression.

In the Middle East, conspiracy theories are always at play. Mokhtar believed he had put his finger on one. Was duplicity at work? He probed.

Queen Selket replica

“If I were to allow these treasures to leave Egypt,” Mokhtar asked in stentorian tones, “how could I be certain that I would get back the originals and not your perfect replicas?”

Hoving glanced my way with a twinkle in his eye, then responded deliberatively after a pause: “Dr. Mokhtar,” he intoned, “ you would have to trust the word of the U.S. government.” Mokhtar sank into his chair to ponder this as he sipped his tea. Perhaps his instincts ran counter to this notion. He shifted uneasily.

Hoving nudged again. He invited Mokhtar to consider sending two Egyptian escorts to accompany the exhibit at all times. They would represent his interests and keep an eye on things.

Mokhtar regained his composure. The security of the exhibit must be his top priority; reaping the rewards that King Tut could bring must be a tight second. He chose to take the risk.

Transportation options stirred debate. Mokhtar would not countenance air shipment, which entailed the remote possibilities of crashing and hijacking. Transportation aboard a U.S. Navy ship emerged as the compromise. The treasures would be locked away in the ship’s brig. A guard would be posted at all times. Deal done.

On pack-out day television crews flocked to the museum. Mokhtar beamed as the Queen was borne down a flight of marble steps. Cameras whirred. She rocked gently as the curator danced his way through TV cables. I held my breath. The pharaoh’s protection carried the day.

Transportation was unorthodox. An open flatbed truck and two ordinary taxis pulled up to move the multi-million dollar exhibit to the Port of Alexandria. Queen Selket, once again entombed, rode unceremoniously in the trunk of the lead taxi. The driver was from Mokhtar’s hometown. Mokhtar and I shared the back seat, cast as the queen’s retainers. A security guard rode shotgun.

My personal responsibility was palpable because at that moment I owned the King Tut Exhibit. Mokhtar insisted that I sign for it in my embassy capacity before it could leave the museum. Washington approved the request. It was mine for several unnerving hours. I still muse about a crime novel.

The 120-piece exhibit, including 50 items from King Tut’s tomb, toured America as “The Treasures of Tutankhamun.” It drew 8-million visitors in seven cities from 1976 to 1979 and netted $30 million. In 1978 it earned $100 million tourism dollars for the City of New York. All stops reported handsome profits. Sales of the original replicas continue to this day.

In a touching gesture to mark the 1976 re-opening of the renovated American Cultural Center in Cairo, Hoving agreed to loan the complete set of replicas.

Like Mokhtar, our Egyptian guests were flummoxed by what they saw. Were they truly seeing replicas? To the best of my knowledge, they were.

President Nixon’s memoirs do not reveal whether he ever visited the King Tut exhibit. The fate of the presidential helicopter has been lost to history. Thomas Hoving died on December 10, 2009, stirring controversy to the end. His penchant for museum marketing, though offensive to purists, has become the industry standard.blue star

image As a Foreign Service Officer Tom Homan worked at American embassies in nine countries in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia focusing on public diplomacy, the media, higher education and cultural affairs. Posts of assignment included Beirut, Kuwait, Cairo, Amman, Baghdad, Berlin, Islamabad and Delhi. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 1995 and today is director of international education at the College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, Minnesota.

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