Egyptian History Lessons with Marc Allum

Antiques Roadshow presenter Marc AllumAntiques Roadshow specialist Marc Allum reflects on how a thwarted trip to see Tutankhamun still rankles but also sparked a life-long interest in history

The year was 1972. I was eight years old and Egyptomania was sweeping the country as the British Museum opened its doors to one of the most anticipated exhibitions in history – the display of 50 of the world’s greatest archaeological treasures form the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The build-up had been immense, even a year before I had pored over images in the Observer colour supplement, the Sunday newspaper that was so much a part of the weekend family ritual.

In those days my father was driving a Ford Pop so travelling to London from Warwickshire was no small endeavour. The M1 motorway was only about 12 years old but the prospect of seeing this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition was too much of a lure. So we set off for the city on a very hot day, the old Ford Popular hardly exceeding 45-50 mph on the pristine and very quiet M1.

Grumpy brother

Sadly, the expedition was to end in disappointment. The queues were unlike anything we had ever experienced. This was truly the first ‘blockbuster’ exhibition and over the period of the event some 1.7m visitors spent as long as eight hours waiting to see the treasures. My brother was five and half and already getting very grumpy as we gave up and headed home back up the M1.

Despite the general despondency, I believe the whole experience sowed something in me and, although it was to be several decades before I visited the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, to come face to face with the golden death mask of the ‘Boy King’ in Cairo Museum, it was worth the wait.

Avid collector

In the intervening years my career in the arts and antiques business allowed me to build on that early interest. I started buying the odd Egyptian artefact: some canopic jar lids, a wonderful pre-dynastic kohl pallet in the shape of a fish, a gold scarab swivel ring and so on – the type of alluring items that need to inhabit a collector’s cabinet of curiosities.

Of course, in the field of antiques, there are constant reminders of such an important culture in world history. I’m always astounded by the amount of ancient Egyptian material that comes to light, sadly, mostly with no provenance. So, too, I’ve enjoyed collecting 19th-century photographs of Egyptian archaeological sites and did on a few occasions, endeavour to replicate some of those early images in my own ‘Englishman abroad’ way.

Lasting legacy

Now, as we approach the 100th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, I can only marvel at the way that this amazing archaeological find has influenced so many people’s lives.

The other day I was cataloguing a huge collection for auction and flicking through a large album of cuttings and scraps, when I came across original clippings from The Times in 1923. One can only imagine the sense of wonder those headlines aroused a century ago; perhaps the same sense of wonder I felt as an eight-year- old boy as I turned over the pages of the Observer magazine.

Marc Allum is an author, lecturer and specialist on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. For more details go to