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by Thomas Hoving
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco recently announced that the blockbuster, "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," would open at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park for nine months, June 27, 2009-Mar. 28, 2010. The exhibition comes 30 years after the 1979 blockbuster King Tut show there.

About 50 of the 150 pieces come from Tut’s tomb, including 12 that were seen in the 1979 show. Highlights include a gold crown found on the head of his mummified form, a lavish bejeweled pectoral inscribed with the hieroglyphic for infinity, and a pair of diminutive coffins that contained the fetuses of what may have been the king’s children. Tut’s famous gold mask, a centerpiece of the ’79 show, is not included this time around. When the original show was in Berlin, one object was slightly damaged and the Egyptian parliament banned future peregrinations for the mask.

As usual with this Tut exhibition, admission charges will be high, as much as $32 for adults.

The 1979 Tut show was free. The reason for the high charges for this one was spelled out by the President of Egypt’s Organization of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass. In a press conference at the opening he said that Egypt had received no revenues from the 1976 exhibition.

Not so.

The revenues from the catalogue, posters, reproductions, scarves, stationery, and so forth in the museum shops at the six locations in the U.S., plus substantial profits from mail-order, was $7 million dollars, today worth maybe five times that amount.

Dr. Hawass has to know all this, since he must have been on the job in 1979 when Daniel Herrick, who was the chief financial officer of the Metropolitan Museum, delivered a fat check to the Egyptian authorities.

According to Herrick, "At the conclusion of the U.S. tour I took a check of about $3 million representing the balance of whatever profits had not previously been remitted, bringing the total up to $7 million.

"To make sure that our calculations of the profits due to the Egyptians were both accurate and confirmed by a third party I had arranged a separate profit and loss statement prepared and audited by our accounting firm, Coopers and Lybrand, of the monies generated at each of the exhibition locations. The senior partner of the firm on our account, Mr. Robert Kavner, agreed to go to Egypt with me when I presented the final check, and to answer any questions about the profit and loss statements which went with it."

Herrick and Kavner traveled to Cairo to meet the woman who succeeded Dr. Gamal Moktar as chair of the Egyptian Organization of Antiquities. "When we finally met up with her I presented the check. She and the people with her were satisfied (if not deliriously happy). There were no substantive questions, no disagreements, or any concerns expressed at the official meetings, or afterwards in any correspondence or communications of any type. Her only question was, ‘Where are the profits from the sale of t-shirts being sold all over the U. S.?’"

So why did Dr. Hawass state firmly that Egypt got no dough from the first show? Who knows? Maybe the apparently vanished $7 million is simply another example of Tut’s curse.

THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.