The repatriation of antiquities has been hard, and thousands of smuggled pieces continue to be out of reach
In 1815, an Italian strongman-turned-explorer and archaeologist of Egyptian antiquities, Giovanni Belzoni, traveled to Thebes, upper Egypt to extract the Younger Memnon, a more than seven-ton granite statue depicting the head of the young Pharoah Ramses II. Belzoni learned of the bust through Swiss scientist and orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who had stumbled across the head, covered in sand at the temple of Memnonium. Although abandoned, this was not a new discovery; its extraction had been attempted several times before, including by Napoleon 16 years prior.
In his 1975 somewhat crudely-titled book, Rape of the Nile, Brian M. Fagan describes the arduous process of how the Younger Memnon traveled from the banks of the Nile to its current home in the British Museum. According to Fagan, Belzoni wrote of the statue: “I found it near the remains of its body and chair, with its face upwards, and apparently smiling on me, at the thought of being taken to England.”
Nearly two centuries later, Zahi Hawas, the outspoken and animated former minister of antiquities, says he received a different message from the same statue. He had been invited to the British Museum to give a lecture, and at a dinner held in the Egyptian gallery, he gave a speech: “I am the only one that can talk to the pharaohs,” he said, “Ramses II beside me was telling me ‘Zahi, we miss Egypt so much we need to go back with you.’”
The Younger Memnon is just one of countless artifacts scattered across the globe that Egyptian officials have requested—officially and unofficially—to be returned. However, the issue of repatriation is an abundantly complex one, with questions of ethics, ownership, cultural heritage, illegal trade, and spotty documentation all contributing to a lack of clarity on how and when it is appropriate for a country to demand the return of an artifact. In Egypt, Hawas has been leading the repatriation effort for over a decade. And although he is no longer minister, he has remained actively involved with the effort.
By his count, he has helped bring upwards of 6,000 pieces back into the country.
Hawas’s Cairo office is brimming with books, awards, and a number of photos of him standing alongside celebrities and notable figures, central among these an autographed shot of him and Celine Dion. It also houses a large case dedicated solely to the documentation of attempts to return artifacts. Fat binders with page after page of correspondence with museum directors, lawyers, government officials, representatives from auction houses, and even letters from children pledging to help lobby for the return of stolen pieces. There are pages and pages of files detailing the specifications of the items, who excavated them and when.
In early 2002, Hawas and a group of international volunteers began combing through auction house listings, and requesting documentation to prove items had not been obtained illegally. From there, the effort grew. Hawas has also had the help of what he calls spies, or “friends of Egypt,” working in major museums who have alerted him to stolen artifacts housed at these institutions. Through these channels he says he has found items at a number of museums, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Louvre.
One high profile case involving the Louvre revolved around four reliefs that had been cut from the wall of a tomb in Luxor. “I found out the Louvre had bought them, and they knew [they had been] stolen.” Hawas says he contacted the director and requested their return. After a year without resolution, he blocked their work on an excavation at Saqqara. “Sarkozy called President Mubarak and told him I had stopped the expedition.” Eventually, France agreed to return the pieces.
However, not all cases have been this successful from the perspective of Egypt. In the late 90s, the St. Louis Art Museum (or SLAM) purchased the Ka-Nefer-Nefer funerary mask, which appeared for auction in Europe, listed by Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquities dealer run by Lebanese brothers Ali and Hicham Aboutaam. Prior to its purchase, the journey of the piece from the time of its excavation in 1952 is murky.
However, it appears that after its discovery, it was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It was then sent to Japan for exhibition where it was not heard of again until it went up for auction several decades later.
The SLAM contacted the director of the Egyptian Museum prior to the mask’s purchase, however the director at the time knew nothing of it. In 2007, Hawas began to press the museum for it to be returned to Egypt, yet they insisted they had done their due diligence. “It doesn’t matter if someone’s ignorant, you don’t ask [the director], you ask the head of antiquities,” asserts an annoyed Hawas.
“I began to make their lives miserable,” Hawas says, who started lobbying the local member of congress and even writing to schools asking them to boycott the museum.
Believing that the mask had in fact been stolen, U.S. Homeland Security filed a case against the museum, SLAM countered and ultimately won due to insufficient documentation and a letter from then director of the Egyptian Museum.
Still, with the case closed, SLAM continued to face pressure for their refusal to return the mask. Hawas claims that during the tenure of the minister after him, Homeland Security struck a deal with the museum to exhibit the mask for six months, publicizing their purchase and intention to return it to Egypt following its exhibition. “The new [minister] said they would have to pay $100,000 a month…so the museum said go to hell and they kept it.”
Although SLAM won the legal battle, it is an excellent example of the complexities surrounding acquisition and ownership of artifacts. Despite not being a proponent of repatriation, Salima Ikram, an archeologist and professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo believes there are clear cases where objects should be returned. The mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer is one such case. “[Egypt] didn’t have enough paperwork, but anyone who knows, knows it was here and it was stolen somehow and these people bought it and they even removed an ancient inscription on it and possibly an inventory number. That one should come back.”
Due to the prohibitive cost, Hawas has avoided filing lawsuits, instead opting to exert strategic pressure to have items returned. His unconventional tactics and bombastic nature have made him many enemies.
With the planned opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum (first slated for 2015, now postponed indefinitely due to financial difficulties), Hawas said he felt it was only appropriate that some of the best-known and unique Egyptian pieces from across the globe should be temporarily exhibited, namely the bust of Nefertiti at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, the Zodiac of Dendera at the Louvre, the statue of Hemiunu—the Architect of the Great Pyramids—at Hildesheim, the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, and finally the bust of Prince Ankhhaf at the Boston Museum of Fine Art (MFA). He requested Egypt be granted a loan from these museums for the opening, but received an almost resounding no. “They began to say how can we trust that Egypt will return [the pieces]?” In some cases, the institutions expressed concern about the objects being transported safely.
The MFA, for their part, refused the loan saying the piece was too fragile to travel. In 2011, then Director Malcolm Rogers told the Boston Globe the issue was “not a question of Egypt,” but rather “a question of the object and its integrity.”
However an insistent Hawas dismissed these explanations. “We are not pirates of the Caribbean,” he exclaimed while recounting the story, “I began to think that they should be punished, so we started to look at these cases one by one.”
He began with the Bust of Nefertiti; long shrouded in controversy about just how the exquisite likeness of the iconic queen was allowed to leave the country. On their website, the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, where the bust resides, indicates that James Simon, who founded the excavations at Amarna where it was discovered in 1912, “acquired ownership…when the finds were divided and bequeathed it to the National Museums in Berlin.” This claim of ownership, however, has been widely disputed. Hawas insists it was taken out of Egypt illegally. “There was a law if you discover anything of a queen or king made of limestone then it doesn’t leave Egypt. It was registered as a bust made of gypsum and hidden for 10 years.” Ikram concurs, “no one can quite believe that the antiquities official let this happen.”
However for some of the items identified by Hawas, there is no clear legal justification for their return. The Rosetta Stone is one such example. Found by a French soldier under Napoleon in 1799, it eventually passed from French to British hands, ultimately making its way to the British Museum. This is one item that is particularly unlikely to be returned to the country due to both, the value of the item as well as complicated questions regarding ownership.
In his speech at the British Museum, Hawas concluded by saying that in his conversation with Ramses II, the pharaoh told him, “you should take back the Rosetta Stone, because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity.” This colorful speech has been complemented by several formal requests for both the return and loan of the stone. However, Ikram points out that Egypt was under Ottoman rule at the time of its removal. “Who will you return it to? Do we give it back to Turkey instead?”
In the last several decades there has been a movement toward the protection of cultural property. It is widely viewed that the keystone of this movement was the development of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which helped to provide a framework for the ethical acquisition of antiquities. In the case of Egypt, the 1983 Law on the Protection of Antiquities designated all items to be property of the state, making private possession of any such pieces prohibited.
Prior to this, other mechanisms existed to control the market. Ikram explained that there have been laws in place regulating excavation since the 19th century, however there were always “fuzzy areas.” From the 20th century onwards, there was legitimate trade of antiquities with registered dealers in Cairo monitored by the government. Even the gift shop in the Egyptian Museum sold original pieces. “In the basement of the museum there are boxes filled with stuff that at the time they had had in the shop upstairs. All of a sudden there was a law that you couldn’t sell anything so all of the stuff was boxed up and is lying in the basement.”
Alongside any legitimate trading, there has always been looting, explains Ikram. “In ancient Egypt someone was buried and 5 minutes later someone is robbing the tomb, there are even papyri that document this.”
But in recent years, despite the progress made in the laws, political instability and economic hardship have only amplified illegal excavation, acquisition and trade of antiquities. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, located in Tahrir Square at the epicenter of the city, was famously looted during the 2011 Revolution. Several of the artifacts taken during this time have since been returned, and many have been displayed in a special exhibition dedicated to repatriated items.
However, this well-documented incident only scratches the surface of the surge of illegal activity that has swept the region more broadly with the instability of the last several years. This destruction and theft has been more pronounced in Iraq and Syria; however, it has also dramatically affected Egypt. Ikram describes the lawlessness and absence of police that accompanied the outbreak of the 2011 Revolution as having created a vacuum, as those involved in illegal trafficking capitalized on the instability on the ground. Poverty has only exacerbated the problem, she says. “For the poor, if your belly is empty, there’s the question of what is it doing lying in the ground? Then, some people are just greedy.”
“After the revolution there was something among Egyptians,” says Hawas, “Every Egyptian thought they would be rich by finding treasure, gold, and red mercury.” There is a myth that red mercury can be found in the throat of mummies. Legend has it this liquid gives you supernatural powers and allows you to control the jinn. “People began to dig everywhere to find this treasure. If I show you a satellite map that I have from 2010 and 2011, there are holes everywhere in 2011.”
Ikram says she believes this activity is tapering down, but there’s only so much that can be done, particularly since many of the excavation sites are massive. “You can’t patrol the desert unless you have lots of guards with four wheel drives and probably automatic weapons. In the old days there wasn’t much need for weapons but now you have a new brand of looters and a lot of them carry weapons.”
The cost of illegal excavation is more than meets the eye. Just as the Cairo Museum was trashed as it was looted, when looters attempt to extract artifacts directly from sites, they often damage items irreparably. Perhaps the most commonly cited example of this kind of damage is when a relief is removed from a wall, compromising the integrity of the entire wall. “Taking is one thing but the destruction that goes hand in hand with the taking is really incalculable. The loss is incalculable.”
Illicit activity can be found at every stage, from illegal excavation, to corruption by government employees, to falsified documents by dealers, to institutions and individuals hiding illegally obtained loot. Recently, a keeper at the storage magazine at Mit Rahina, where the ruins of the city of Memphis lie, stole an artifact that was later sold, replacing the real object with a replica. There is a long history of cases like these. With museum employees paid meager wages, and many Egyptians living well below the poverty line, there is great incentive to steal. This has only served to bolster the arguments of individuals outside of the country either engaged in the illegal trade of antiquities or those trying to prevent the repatriation of objects, who say that Egyptians do not appreciate these priceless items, nor do they have the knowledge or resources to properly care for them.
One such individual is Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, an infamous British restorer turned convicted smuggler. During the 90s, Tokeley-Parry smuggled over 3,000 artifacts out of the country. Eventually, he was convicted and served three years in a British jail before being released in 2001. In an interview last year, an indignant Tokeley-Parry said, “The modern Egyptians are completely incompetent. They have no care for the objects.”
Despite having amassed great personal gain from his illegal activity, he has consistently defended his actions. “From my point of view antiquities…should be where they can be looked after properly.” He said, “What the West has done in the last 20 years, it’s been saying ‘oh we’ve been terribly bad to these people, we’ve been taking their things away. How appalling that we’ve taken their things away.’ All I’m saying is that it’s a good thing we’ve taken their things away because otherwise they would have been destroyed.”
Not surprisingly, both within Egypt and outside, many in the world of art and antiquities find this line of argument ethically repugnant. “Who died and made them God?” retorted Ikram. “Let us not forget that about 20 years ago, having worked in some of these places, museums in the U.K. and the U.S. and all of Europe had objects which have been flooded and destroyed. The salts have come out and things have exploded,” she explains, “People like Tokeley-Parry are not selling to museums. They are selling to private collectors which is a completely different kettle of fish…When they go into private collections 90 percent of the time they disappear from view.” For his part, Hawas calls these types of arguments against repatriation “bullshit.” “It doesn’t mean because you have 13 children that you’ll sell one of them. They are your children!”
Tokeley-Parry is just one of several individuals who have personally benefited from their status at the top of the food chain of the antiquities trade. Obtaining artifacts for dirt cheap and selling them for a massive profit—sometimes millions of dollars—on the international market. The Aboutaam brothers, who run Phoenix Ancient Art, the dealers who sold the Ke-Nefer-Nefer mask to the St. Louis Art Museum, were convicted by an Egyptian court for illegally smuggling antiquities out of the country. And this was not an isolated incident. The family has had other brushes with the law for falsifying documents related to the sale of an item. “Antiquities, arms, humans and drugs,” says Ikram, “these are the four big types of trafficking.”
Given the movement toward greater accountability in the acquisition and trade of antiquities, and the difficulty in tracking many of these pieces, auction houses and museums have been establishing more rigorous policies to standardize their practices over the last several years.
In 2008, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which has over 200 members, published a report on the Acquisition of Archeological Materials and Ancient Art as a framework for maintaining the “highest standards of professional practice” among its members. When asked about the inception of the report, a representative from AAMD explained: “Given the complex issues surrounding ancient art and archaeological materials, we felt it was important to provide members guidance when considering the acquisition of such works.” However, these guidelines are non-binding, and ultimately museums make their own decisions on how items are acquired or sold.
Christie’s auction house has over the years been involved in the sale of several items that have sparked controversy. This includes in 2014 the more than £15 million sale of a statue of Sekhemka, the inspector of royal scribes, from the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery to fund the construction of an additional wing in the museum. The sale was met with wide scale outrage as many questioned the ethics of removing such a piece from being publicly accessible into an individual’s private collection. From the perspective of Egypt, it was not theirs to sell in the first place.
The famous auction house has established a detailed policy on dealing with stolen or looted items. However, the definition of stolen means different things depending on whom you speak to. At the time of the sale, then Egyptian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ashraf El Kholy, described the sale as illegal, imploring the museum to return the piece to Egypt if they did not want to keep it. A spokesperson told Newsweek Middle East that “Christie’s has rigorous due diligence in place to prevent looted items entering our sales by demanding documentary or photographic evidence of provenance. We collaborate with law enforcement, UNESCO and countries of origin, including Egypt.”
And according to the UNESCO convention they are not technically in the wrong, as items acquired prior to the agreement, or acquired legally after it, do not qualify. Still, it is widely believed that objects like these should not be in private collections away from the public eye, and out of the reach of researchers.
“People should not have objects in their homes,” insists Hawas, who recounts a story from the opening of the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago in 2006. The massive energy company, Exelon, had sponsored the exhibit. Hawas says that on the day of the exhibit’s press conference, Exelon CEO John Rowe was having lunch with President Bush and instead, sent his assistant to represent him at the conference. In an attempt to convey Rowe’s passion for ancient Egypt, his assistant divulged the presence of a coffin in Rowe’s office. A very public squabble ensued, as Hawas demanded Rowe give up the sarcophagus, asking the exhibit organizers to pull Exelon as a sponsor until he obliged. Rowe ended up giving the sarcophagus to the Field Museum “on loan for an indefinite period of time.”
When it comes to the repatriation of cultural property, there are valid arguments on both sides. Ikram, who does not support repatriation broadly but believes illegally obtained items should be returned, wonders what will happen if everything goes back to Egypt. “How will anyone know about Egypt? How will anyone be excited?” She asks, “It is many people who study Egypt or spend money in Egypt or invest in Egypt who, when they were children or young people, went to a museum and saw an Egyptian artifact that spoke to them. I think these are the best ambassadors that Egypt has.”
For Hawas, who estimates that one third of the country’s antiquities have left the country through illegal excavation, says that his dream has been to “make the world understand: What you have, we own it. You have it as a guest. You have to treat it well. If you buy any stolen artifacts, I will bring them back.” He says he has wanted to make Egyptians proud of their cultural heritage, and wants them to recognize the value of these items, and the fact that they have been returned to their home.
But this is a challenge in a country with an extremely troubled education system, rampant poverty, and an economic crisis to boot. And while in most cases it is reasonable to argue that Egypt is the rightful owner of many of these pieces, until the conditions in the country stabilize, it will remain nearly impossible to both, halt the loss of items from the country, and successfully secure the return of many more. “People need to be more aware and responsible and have respect for themselves and their own history,” says Ikram, “Whether it is Egyptian [or other], it is all history, it is everyone’s. It’s what made us all who we are.”