Why Egyptian replicas are as good as the real thing

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Manchester's Tutankhamun exhibition is full of fakes, but no less inspiring for that.

The exhibition Tutankhamun – His Tomb and His Treasures, which opened at the Trafford Centre on Friday, boasts the very room that amazed Carter 88 years ago. Golden beds, chairs, chariots, chests and portraits are heaped as they were when he peeked through that tiny aperture: the death mask of Tutankhamun, one of the most astonishing works of art on earth, is here. The only trouble is, none of it is real. All the marvels are reproductions, modelled with digital technology and expertly crafted to mimic the originals, at a cost of £4.4m.

Does it matter? Is this exhibition a con, a delusion, a postmodern joke? Is it not a bit rich to sell tickets to a display that is really no more authentic than a horror film with mummies chasing screaming actors through digitally created pyramids? But to get lofty and highfalutin about it is to forget the history of "Egyptomania", the fascination with ancient Egypt that has long gripped western culture. People have been faking Egyptian artefacts for centuries, and mixing those fakes with real relics, in a way that was not stupid, but rather inspired curiosity, discoveries, learning. In the 17th century, sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini stuck an ancient obelisk on the back of a stone elephant, mixing real archaeology with his own art. In the age of Napoleon, every fashionable house had a faked-up, Egyptian-style chaise longue. In Regency London you could visit the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, a simulated Egyptian temple complete with colossal columns and statues, run as a profitable enterprise (today Harrods has its own Egyptian Hall)....

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