Two brothers have discovered that the strange-looking object handed down to them from their grandparents is an Egyptian treasure so rare only one other is known in the world.
The brothers, who want to remain anonymous, were stunned when Sotheby's auctioneers told them it was a 3,500-year-old silver and gold diadem, or crown, dating from the period before Tutankhamun.
By chance, it had been spotted by Egypt expert Dr Nicholas Reeves, an arts and museums consultant, on a visit to the auction house. He recognised it as being similar to an internationally renowned diadem at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, a find from the early days of Egyptology and long considered unique. Both are examples of early burial jewellery.
"We were absolutely astounded," one of the brothers, a small businessman in London, said yesterday. "It's been in the family for as long as I can remember. I thought it was nothing special."
The brothers believe it was bought by their grandparents, art historians who came to Britain as refugees from Germany at the start of the Second World War. All through their childhood, it stood in a glass cabinet in the living room, ignored by the family which had not inherited the grandparents' enthusiasm for antiquities.
About 10 years ago, the brothers' mother handed over the diadem and other heirlooms, but its history only emerged when they decided to sell some of the collection at auction. They then discovered it was so rare it was difficult to price. Now it is in a bank vault until a buyer can be found.
"We understand it is the type of thing museums are interested in buying if they had the funds, but at the moment museums aren't flush," the owner said. "But I think it should be in a museum."
He does not know whether his grandmother would have known its rarity. "She had quite a few dealings with the Leiden museum so she might have."
Dr Reeves, who has spent the last year investigating the diadem, said: "It's a very important piece and worthy of an international museum. I would like to see it go to the British Museum but with present funding I don't think there's much chance of that. Yet prices for antiquities are much more reasonable given their rarity compared with something of mass interest like Impressionist paintings."
Dr John Taylor, of the British Museum's Egyptian antiquities department, said it was interesting the diadem had been unknown for so long. "If it is something of that importance it is unusual that it should not be known. I was most surprised when this one turned up like a bolt out of the blue."
The diadem dates from the Theban 17th Dynasty, and Dr Reeves believes it was made for a queen, probably Mentuhotep, the Great Royal Wife of King Sekhemre-sementawy Djehuty. Her grave was discovered near the Valley of the Kings. The good condition of the diadem suggests it came from the bandaged head of the coffined mummy, away from the corrosive effects of the body and the desert sand.Reuse content