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Carter, Howard (1874 – 1939)

‘The “Tutankhamen Curse” was his invention, invented out of pique – a sort of vengeance towards his loyal friend Lord Carnarvon’

A revelatory six page autograph letter signed by Howard Carter, in which he addresses directly the rumoured “curse of Tutenkhamen”.

Dated January 21st 1934 on Luxor headed paper, Carter writes to a Miss Ionides (Helen Ionides,  6th. child of Constantine Ionides: a wealthy collector and philanthropist who donated 82 paintings to the V & A).

He opens by thanking his correspondent, ‘for your two most interesting letters and for the delightful biography of Flush with the qualities of the canine family – Devotion. Attachment. And defence until death. I also must thank you for the newspaper cuttings.’ He goes on, ‘The death of the Duchess of Alba was very sad – the more so, poor woman, she had been for years gradually fading away. T.B. is an awful disease.’ 

Carter then moves on to make a blistering attack on the Egyptologist Arthur Weigall, whom Carter here identifies as the source of the story about a curse in the tomb of Tutenkhamen: ‘I fear I must admit that I have not the same sentiments with regard to Weigall. In fact, his death is a real blessing. For although he was a clever writer he was cunning. His inventions had no basis and thus a menace to Archaeology. Most of them for temporary excitement and amusement at the expense of others. The “Tutankhamen Curse” was his invention, invented out of pique – a sort of vengeance towards his loyal friend Lord Carnarvon who, because Weigall came out solely as correspondent of the Daily Mail, was obliged to treat him like the other newspaper correspondents. He was never at the opening of the discovery. He was the last of the correspondents to arrive, several minutes afterwards. But enough of this venom I must direct to a more pleasant subject.’

Carter then moves on to discuss his colleague Newberry, his correspondent’s trip to Egypt, Ruth Draper (‘a charming woman’) and other matters.

It was upon seeing Lord Carnarvon preparing to enter the tomb that Arthur Weigall was reported to have said ‘if he goes down in that spirit I give him 6 weeks to live’, a prophecy which proved correct when Carnarvon died after being bitten by a mosquito within the allotted time. Although the notion of the curse seems far fetched today many people were convinced of its power at the time, including Arthur Conan Doyle, and the fact that twenty one people connected with the excavation died within a relatively short space of time only served to add fuel to the myth. It would, however, be overly credulous to see the death of Carter’s pet canary swallowed whole by a cobra as evidence of the curse. Carter, the amateur archaeologist, patronised for his lack of a university education by establishment figures such as Weigall and Percy Newberry, to whom he refers in the same letter, here reveals his resentment in an intemperate attack on Weigall, all the more unfair given that Weigall had helped him early in his career. Later in the letter he goes on to assert that Weigall was not even present at the opening of the tomb, but this assertion owes as much to the strict monopoly exercised by The Times which owned the copyright to the iconic photographs taken by Harry Burton as to any lingering bitterness on Carter’s part.

In very fine condition. To out knowledge, this is the only known letter by Carter referring to the “curse” of Tutenkhamen to have ever come to market.