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Something for the Weekend: A Visit to the Treasure of the Golden Pharaoh exhibition, The Saatchi Gallery, London. February 2020

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John Clark, author of this piece, worked with the World Bank from 1992-2008, mostly in various headquarters roles in Washington DC as Lead Social Scientist. He was seconded to the UN Secretary General’s office (2003-4) to advise on UN reform. Since leaving the Bank he has served in a number of non-profit organisations addressing human rights, improving the professionalism and governance of charities and fighting corruption. Before moving to the World Bank he worked for Oxfam where he ran its campaigns and policy programmes.  Now he is a part-time retiree, which gives him plenty of time to travel and visit museums, such as for the Tutankhamun Exhibition.

John has also recently registered his Glint account.

“As soon as you step inside the Tutankhamun Exhibition you realise why King Tut was known as the Golden Pharaoh. Gold is everywhere and even though you are prepared for it, the sheer profusion and exuberance of the metal is breath-taking. Imagine the shock and adrenaline rush that Howard Carter must have felt when he first opened the tomb in 1922. Buried with the king were 5398 items of treasure, many of them golden or gilded. He was buried in a 3-piece sarcophagus, the inner one of which was 110 kg of pure gold – which, at today’s prices, would cost £5 million. Other gold items included thrones, chariots, sculptures and many pieces of jewellery. In total it is estimated that 1200 kg were buried with the young king when he died approximately 1325 BCE.

To see all this is to know why gold has fascinated almost every culture on earth since time immemorial. The rich colour of the light it reflects, the lustre of its surface and its very permanence makes it a unique medium for art and makes for ready parallels with the Sun itself; as Goethe said “The sun itself, it is of pure gold” (Faust II).

What is etched in the memory of all who are able to see the exhibition is how so many of the items displayed look as if they could be on-sale in an upmarket jeweller’s shop or contemporary art exhibition today – they are so fresh, undamaged and vibrant. By any standards the design artistry is remarkable; that all the craftsmen have been dead for 33 centuries makes it miraculous.

Although you know it is vulgar in the face of such creative splendour, one can’t help wondering how much it is all worth, and how much it would have cost at the time. Well, the total amount of gold alone (1200kgs) at today’s price would be worth £55 million. It is more difficult to say how much that gold would have been worth 3350 years ago, but ancient records show that a cow cost about 8 shats in Ancient Egypt – one shat being about 7.5 grams of gold. So, with that amount of gold, an Egyptian king could have bought 20,000 cows. Today, a good cow might cost up to £1000 in Egypt, but perhaps the scrawny ones of those days might be worth half this or less. Let’s say £450 – equivalent to about 10 grams of gold. If cows were the universal currency of time travellers this would mean that gold can buy 6 times more today than it could in King Tut’s days.

Only a small fraction of the pieces from Tutankhamun’s tomb are included in the travelling exhibition and yet it seems almost boundless. The tour started in California, Paris and London (where it was housed at the Saatchi Gallery) and is destined to finish in Cairo in 2023 where the whole collection will be housed in a purpose-built museum, so ending the peripatetic history of King Tut’s treasures”.

NOTE: The London exhibition, which was slated to run until April 30, 2020, closed on March 18 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Saatchi Gallery requested the Egyptian authorities to extend the loan period so that it could reopen for the 44 days that had been lost. On June 17, the Egyptian Cabinet approved this request.

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