Egypt gets tougher to safeguard its ancient treasures

Authorities are taking a more aggressive approach to recovering what they claim are stolen artefacts that have appeared on the international antiquities market.
Sunday 08/03/2020
An Egyptian archaeologist restores the throne of King Tutankhamun at the conservation centre in the Grand Egyptian Museum.  (AFP)
Priceless. An Egyptian archaeologist restores the throne of King Tutankhamun at the conservation centre in the Grand Egyptian Museum. (AFP)

LONDON -The plundering of Egypt’s archaeological treasures is as old as the pharaohs. Ancient grave robbers gave way to colonial-era explorers, who dispatched their finds to Europe’s greatest museums and a legal trade thrived on international markets until 1983.

In that year, the Egyptian parliament enacted a stringent law, backed by the threat of prison terms, that declared all antiquities on national territory to be the property of the state.

However, in the years of unrest and political uncertainty following the “Arab spring,” a decline in security and a surge in illegal construction around archaeological sites saw a resurgence of looting and the smuggling of artefacts.

As the almost 9 million tourists who visited Egypt in 2019 can testify, security has been firmly re-established around the sites, with a visible police presence around even the lesser-visited monuments of the Nile Valley.

Parliament moved this year to toughen the 1983 law by warning that any individual illicitly buying or selling an item of cultural heritage outside Egypt could face a fine of 10 million Egyptian pounds ($640,000) and maximum-security jail time.

The Egyptian Culture Ministry said the measure was prompted by the increasing cases of illegal artefact trading, much of it via the internet by traders claiming the items had been legally obtained.

Authorities are also taking a more aggressive approach to recovering what they claim are stolen artefacts that have appeared on the international antiquities market.

Government officials last year said they planned to sue the London auction house Christie’s after it went ahead, despite Egypt’s protests, with the $6 million sale of a disputed bust of King Tutankhamun.

The Egyptians say the bust, from a private collection, was stolen from Luxor in the 1970s. A ban on trade in looted artefacts predates restrictions introduced in 1983.

The law is also getting tougher on domestic transgressors. The Cairo Criminal Court recently sentenced Boutros Raouf Boutros Ghali, brother of a former finance minister, to 30 years in prison plus a 6 million pound ($383,387) fine on two charges of trafficking antiquities.

The artefacts, seized by Italian police in 2017, included more than 20,000 coins as well as statuettes, gold-plated masks and a wooden coffin. The recovered items were put on display in Egypt, as was an ancient gilded coffin repatriated by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art after US investigators identified it as a looted antiquity.

Egypt is not on its own in the campaign to hold on to its national treasures. The British Museum, which has the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts outside Egypt, last year took on the role of leading an international task force to monitor the trade in Egyptian and Nubian antiquities.

Experts in London, using a sophisticated database, worked with colleagues in Cairo and Khartoum to identify looted or stolen items. Looted items might never have been reported missing and others might have been sold decades ago with fake provenances.

Part of the team’s task is to alert police and customs authorities if they identify suspicious items on offer at auction houses, galleries or websites such as eBay.

The moves to safeguard Egypt’s archaeological heritage come as exhibits at the Egyptian Museum, an iconic rose-red building in Tahrir Square, are disappearing into packing cases to be transferred to a new Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids at Giza.

The $1 billion project is part of Egypt’s effort to upgrade and modernise its attractions for foreign tourists.

The new museum will house more than 100,000 objects, including 30,000 that have never been exhibited. Highlights will include King Tutankhamun’s 5,000-piece funerary collection, on display for the first time in one space.

The old Tahrir Square museum is a splendid reminder of a bygone age. Opened in 1902, it had become somewhat rundown in recent years, with priceless treasures kept in rickety display cases as old as the museum itself.

In the old laissez-faire days, when trading in national treasures was relatively unfettered by law, the museum had its own shop for the sale of genuine artefacts. These days visitors to the museum and to its successor at Giza will have to make do with reproductions as they exit through the gift shop.

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