Image of the bust Image Credit: Supplied

Cairo: Egyptian authorities have stepped up their efforts to stop an auction scheduled later this week in London to sell a 3,000-year-old bust believed to depict the famed Pharaoh Tutankhamen.

The Christie’s auction house expects the brown quartzite sculpture to fetch more than 5.1 million dollars when it goes under the hammer on Thursday.

The news of the sale has outraged Egyptians, and prompted a flurry of legal and diplomatic moves to block the auction and restore the relic believed to have been smuggled out of the country decades ago.

Shaaban Abdul Jawad, an official at the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, said that the ministry had requested Christie’s to provide documents proving ownership of the 28.5cm-long statute that will be auctioned off along with 31 other artefacts.

“If it is proven that any artefact had been smuggled out of Egypt, all legal measures would be taken with the Interpol and in coordination with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to stop its sale and guarantee its repatriation,” he added in media remarks.

The Ministry of Antiquities said it had already asked the Christie’s and the UN culture agency (UNESCO) to stop the contentious sale.

“In coordination with the Foreign Ministry and the Egyptian embassy in London, we have sent a request for halting the auction and seeing the documents proving that the statue had left Egypt legally,” head of the governmental Supreme Council of Antiquities Mustafa Al Waziri said.

He ruled out the possibility that the piece could have been part of King Tut’s tomb discovered in Luxor in Upper Egypt in 1992.

The sculpture might have been smuggled out of the famed Karnak temples in Luxor, according to Al Waziri.

“But there is no doubt that it is an Egyptian artefact,” he added.

The news of the auction prompted a crisis meeting of an antiquity repatriation committee led by Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al Enani.

The panel, which comprises well-known Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass and ex-Arab League chief Nabil Al Arabi,

rejected the sale and called for the return of all Pharaonic items planned to be auctioned off.

Christie’s has said that the sculpture will be auctioned off from the private Resandro collection, contending it has a history of legal ownership.

According to the auction hall, the bust was acquired from Heinz Herzer from Munich in 1985 and was earlier owned by Austrian Joseph Messina.

Christie’s said that the statue shows the boy king in the shape of ancient Egyptian deity Amun.

In 1983, Egypt issued a law banning selling its ancient artefacts in a move aimed at protecting the country’s unrivalled treasures.

In recent years, Egypt has successfully restored several antiquities from different parts of the world, as the country is seeking to use its ancient wealth to revive a vital tourism industry.