Why I would attend a SAFE Tour

On April 11, 12 and 13, 2014 SAFE Beacon Award winner, Dr. Monica Hanna will be giving guided museum tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, focusing specifically on the Egyptian collections at both museums. 

Dr. Hanna will be joining the ranks of the various journalists, archeologists, museum specialists, and art historians who, since 2004, have been giving SAFE Tours and sharing their expert knowledge about different aspects of ancient objects and their greater context within the field of cultural heritage. As always, with each SAFE Tour, visitors are guaranteed a unique and engaging experience. You will find yourself delving into issues not covered by typical tour guides, such as those dealing with source countries and—potentially debatable—provenances of these ancient artifacts.

Now, I’m not sure how many of you are experts in Egyptian antiquities, but I know that I most certainly am not. Luckily for us though, Dr. Hanna’s expertise can provide a thorough and enriching take on Egypt’s cultural heritage. I myself have seen these collections before and I thought they were both amazing. Indeed, with the Met’s collection of 6,400 objects on view that date from the Paleolithic to the Roman period (ca. 300,000 B.C. – C.E. 4th century) and the Brooklyn Museum’s collection of over 1,000 objects on view that date from the Bronze Age to the Roman Period (ca. 4,000 B.C.E. – C.E. 4th century) I found myself thinking that I could spend an entire day at either location.

However, like any museum exhibit that I visit without much prior knowledge of the subject, there was only so much information that I was able to absorb by reading the information plaques. To be truthful, my main take away from each visit was more of an appreciation of the artifacts than an increase in my actual understanding of them. This is often why I try to take a friend who not only shares my passion for art and archaeology, but who also knows more than I do (or simply has a different area of expertise). If you’ve ever listened to someone who’s passionate about a piece or an artist while at a gallery, then you probably already know how infectious that enthusiasm is. Moreover, you know that you find yourself recalling tidbits about artworks or artifacts that would have otherwise been lost among the hundreds of other facts you read that day.

Brooklyn Museum of Art Brooklyn Museum
Richard Barnes/Polshek Partnership Architects

Thanks to Dr. Hanna, we now have the opportunity to have that very friend with us at the museum. A rising star in the field, Dr. Hanna received her Bachelor’s degree in Egyptology and Archaeological Chemistry from the American University in Cairo. She then went on to earn her Master’s in teaching English as a foreign language and later received her PhD in Archaeological Sciences from the University of Pisa in Italy. Furthermore, Dr. Hanna has been spearheading current efforts to safeguard Egypt’s heritage, with Betsy Hiel of the Tribune-Review hailing her as “a leader in exposing the looting of Egyptian antiquities.” The young archaeologist was also recently featured in Channel 4’s 2013 documentary, Unreported World: Egypt’s Tomb Raiders.

As both an Egyptologist and a native of Egypt, Dr. Hanna will bring the collections of the Met and the Brooklyn Museum to life as she gives a story-filled and enlightening tour of each collection. You will leave not only with a greater appreciation of these collections, but also a deeper understanding of these artifacts and the dangers they face within the greater context of Egypt’s cultural heritage.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art The Metropolitan Museum of Art
FindTheBest

Dr. Hanna will pose questions that we, ourselves, may not normally ask such as: from where have these ancient objects come? How did they get here? Who donated them or were they acquired by the museum? What was the expense? From her firsthand experience with looting and tomb raiders, Dr. Hanna knows all too well that not every artifact comes into a collection through expected means. She will be able to share her tales on how artifacts similar to the ones on display in these museums fall into the black market. As these are tours unlike any other, don’t miss your opportunity to be a part of this unique experience and reserve your tickets today.

 

April 10: An important day for cultural heritage

For those concerned about the preservation and protection of our shared cultural heritage, April 10 is our day. Here’s why:

Monica Hanna Cooper Union posterDr. Monica Hanna will deliver her 2014 SAFE Beacon Award Lecture “Saving Ancient Egypt, One Tweet at a Time: How Social Media is Saving One of the World’s Oldest Civilizations” at the The Frederick P. Rose Auditorium (41 Cooper Square, Third Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets, from 
6:30 – 8:00PM. 
Please register here.) In Dr. Hanna’s first public lecture in the US, she will share firsthand accounts of the risks she takes to expose the looting problem in Egypt. She will tell us how looting feeds the black market trade of antiquities and destroys ancient sites, forever damaging our ability to learn from Egypt’s undiscovered ancient past, our shared heritage. She will describe what she, along with a group of volunteers have been doing about the situation, and how their efforts using social media have led to actual recovery of stolen objects. Perhaps most important, she will suggest what we can all do to help. The Beacon Award ceremony will follow.

Earlier the same day, the symposium Reform of Cultural Property Policy: Accountability, Transparency, and Legal Certainty will take place at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (55 Fifth Avenue, 1:30 – 5:30PM. Please register here.) Presented by the Committee for Cultural Policy, Inc. and the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal (AELJ), the half-day symposium will feature legal scholars, museum directors, and cultural policy specialists and explore whether current US law and policy be changed to better serve the interests of museums, the antiquities trade and preservation. Representing the views of various stakeholders, the discussions promise to be lively.

Will Dr. Hanna’s perspectives and firsthand experiences inform the conclusions from the earlier symposium? The answer is: YES.

SAFE is proud to collaborate with the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal and we invite all symposium attendees to join us to the SAFE Beacon Award Lecture at the Cooper Union Rose Auditorium, a few minutes’ walk away. Will Dr. Hanna’s perspectives and firsthand experiences inform the conclusions from the earlier symposium? The answer is: YES. For those who wish to sample Dr. Hanna’s point of view, tune into her highly anticipated April 9 appearance on “The Leonard Lopate Show” which will be broadcast over WNYC-AM radio and over the internet, between 12:40 PM.

April 10 is a day of special significance for SAFE. On this day, news about the looting of the Iraq Museum broke and planted the seed for our organization, founded to mobilize all citizens to take part in the stewardship of our shared cultural heritage.

Past and Present Working Together

Thanks to our sponsor Yadaweya, guests to the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award Dinner will be treated to a gift from the Egyptian online fair trade marketplace. This collaboration with SAFE provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on where the past and present cross paths and how this intersection can help preserve heritage of all kinds. To quote their website, Yadaweya “serves as a platform for those interested in discovering Egypt and its cultural heritage.” So not only does it provide artisans the opportunity to continue making their traditional crafts and preserve a skill set that has been passed down through the generations (such as the loom work in this video), it also educates consumers about the historical sites that are home to these artisan communities.

Twelve Egyptian heritage sites are featured on their web site, providing background information about the sites and the artisans that work in the area. By adding this human connection to the heritage sites, Yadaweya emphasizes a point that is sometimes forgotten: heritage sites are not only isolated structures in uninhabited lands.

Yadaweya has previously participated in SAFE Beacon Award Winner Monica Hanna’s campaign to protect the Dahshour site. To them, keeping history alive is vital to its survival. SAFE is pleased to collaborate with Yadaweya in our common cause of preserving heritage for all.

Egypt’s heritage: a global concern

SAFE has added Egypt to the “A Global Concern” section of our web site. With recent updates on the dangers to cultural heritage resulting from political unrest, looting, and encroaching civilization, these pages aim to create an overview of what Egypt stands to lose, how cultural heritage is endangered, the market demand for Egyptian antiquities, what Egypt is doing to safeguard its own heritage, and what others are doing and how YOU can help protect Egypt’s heritage.

These pages were written and researched by Beatrice Kelly, with additional research by Tessa Varner. They exemplify the kind the work interns produce at SAFE.

Photo: Mallawi Museum

SAFE takes “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” buttons to Egypt

SAFE launched “Say YES to Egypt” campaign three years ago in response to the frightening news about the looting and destruction of Egypt’s cultural heritage. Our goal was to raise awareness about the situation and show solidarity for the people in Egypt. Thanks to your enthusiastic response, buttons were distributed around the globe, from Greece to Australia to Sweden to Canada - check out our Flickr page to see pictures posted by supporters showing off their buttons.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 9.20.17 AMThis April, in honor of our 2014 Beacon Award Winner Monica Hanna, SAFE will relaunch this awareness campaign and distribute “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” buttons in  Egypt. The Egypt-based media agency Past Preservers will kick off our campaign in Egypt by sponsoring the production of the first 500 buttons there. Dr. Hanna and Professor Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo will help give them out. Wearers are asked to have their photos taken with the buttons (selfies are perfect!) Their photos will join these to make a statement to the world that we all stand together to save the past for our future.

With these buttons, not only will Egyptians wear their pride for their heritage on their sleeves (or lapels, shirts, bags, anywhere…) they will also send a clear message to others to also say “YES” to Egypt’s heritage, our shared heritage.

Join Past Preservers and sponsor SAFE’s ”Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” with a donation of $100 for 500 buttons. Help spread the word. Each campaign donor will be acknowledged on our “Say YES” campaign page and on our cause page. Campaign ends April 30.

Who is Monica Hanna?

If you’re not already one of Monica Hanna’s rapidly-growing followers: more than 25,000 on Twitter—and add another 2,500 if you’re also following her on Facebook—or if you’re not one of the 6,500 fans of Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, you may not be familiar yet with the winner of SAFE’s 2014 Beacon Award. Lauded within the field of cultural heritage, the Egyptian archaeologist is proving herself a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the illegal excavation and looting of ancient artifacts. We’ve written about Dr. Hanna before, but we’d like to take a moment to fully introduce the woman who is arguably changing the way we approach looting, vandalism, and the destruction of cultural heritage by introducing Monica Hanna through our “Who Is…?” campaign.

In 2009, SAFE started a “Who Is…?” campaign to introduce important individuals working on the front lines to protect the past for the future. Each “Who Is…?” profile includes statements by these individuals, excerpts from their writings, comments and reviews from others in the world of cultural preservation.

By highlighting the work of these individuals who may not be widely known yet, we invite any member of the general public to learn about the issues by finding out about the efforts of others who have made a difference. It also aims to inspire all of us to think of ways they too can contribute to the preservation of our heritage.

Stay tuned as we prepare for the upcoming award and check back here often for news and updates regarding Monica Hanna. In the meantime, take a further look at our campaign, Who is Monica Hanna?” and see what others are saying about how Monica defends and protects our shared cultural heritage.

Curtailing the loss of cultural patrimony by curtailing demand

Three years ago, we made this appeal to the trade: [U]ntil order is restored, we believe that if the demand for Egyptian antiquities is curtailed, if not stopped, the loss of Egypt’s cultural patrimony during this tumultuous time would be curbed. We then conducted a poll on the question: ”Should market countries stop buying antiquities from Egypt until order is restored?” Seventy-six percent responded “Yes”; and thirty-six percent went further by responding “Yes. Antiquities trade should stop, period.” What this informal poll shows is unequivocal.

Should market countries stop buying antiquities from Egypt survey results

The US remains a leading market for antiquities. A quick search for “Egyptian antiquities” on the eBay site at the time of this writing yielded more than 180 results, ranging from an “ancient silver pendant” selling for $5 to a “wooden sarcophagus” in a three-day auction with an opening price of $12,665.00, marked down from $14,000, available within 5 miles from midtown Manhattan zip code 10019. It is therefore welcome news to see that, according to this report in the Cairo Times, the world’s largest online auction site eBay has agreed with the US Egyptian Embassy to stop the sale of Egyptian antiquities. While it is unclear from the Cairo Times article if this agreement only applies to eBay in the US (what about eBay in Germany, Japan, etc.?) or when the sales ban will take effect, this is a significant move.

It is encouraging to see Egyptian authorities recognize that putting heat on major market players such as eBay is one way to curtail the loss of the world’s most precious nonrenewable resource.

SAFECORNER has addressed the concern regarding online auctions of antiquities for some time. We therefore applaud eBay for setting aside profit-making and joining the effort to save Egypt’s cultural patrimony, and our shared cultural heritage. We can only hope that eBay affiliates outside the U.S. will follow suit, e.g., by limiting or banning the sale of Cypriot artifacts on eBay Cyprus.

Protecting Egypt’s cultural heritage – repatriation efforts alone will not suffice

Given the well documented role of auction sales in the legitimization of unprovenanced artifacts, which translates as “no questions asked,” or possibly looted or looted, should anyone be surprised that a major source country such as Egypt would follow the examples set by Italy, Cambodia, Iran, and non-state actors such as Native American tribes in the United States, to stop the impending sale of artifacts that departed its country of origin without the benefit of a valid export certificate? The answer is: no.

The Egyptian Antiquities Ministry has made a concerted effort in recent months to pour over auction house catalogs in a global search for stolen antiquities and is pursuing in “all legal and diplomatic means to recover smuggled artifacts,” according to a story published in the online journal Al Monitor.

Egypt’s decision is understandable. Pressuring auctioneers to withdraw undocumented artifacts from sale sends an unambiguous message to would-be consignors that the risk of offering such material at public auction is rising. This, in turn, reduces the incentive to dig up and smuggle these items in the first place.

One would hope that the authorities concerned with antiquities in Egypt would further reduce the incentive to loot artifacts by paying more attention to prevention and enforcement efforts before these treasures appear for sale at auction houses.

To date, the most effective mechanism is found in Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO Convention).

As a state party to the Convention, Egypt can request the United States to impose temporary restrictions of the importation of the most endangered categories of Egyptian archaeological and ethnographic material into the largest market for such material in the world, the United States, by requesting the U.S. to enter into a bilateral agreement (Memorandum of Understanding or MOU), under Title 19 U.S.C. 2600 et seq, known as the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA) enacted in 1983.

Given the deteriorating situation on the ground in Egypt, it is likely that Egypt will qualify for emergency import restrictions under CCPIA, which the Government of Mali received from the U.S. in September 1993.

Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mustafa Amin recently told Al-Monitor, “All international laws and conventions grant the competent authorities concerned with antiquities in Egypt the right to preserve the artifacts and to track [the pieces] illegally smuggled outside the country.”

We urge the Egyptian authorities to follow through and use all legal mechanisms to discourage looting, prevent smuggling, preserve and protect the most precious part of Egypt’s vast cultural patrimony: the still-intact evidence of its undiscovered past that remains in the ground. Repatriation efforts alone will not suffice. Efforts to encourage Egyptian authorities to seek an MOU with the U.S. are underway. The decision that Egyptian officials must make is clear.

Photo: Pharaonic artifacts are seen on display at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Sept. 30, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

Stop the plunder: archaeologist calls for more pressure on Egyptian government

The plunder of Egypt’s cultural heritage has again come to a boiling point in the last several days. Increased incidents of looting continue to exacerbate a situation already at great risk since the political turmoil. While little has been reported about the devastation in the press; thanks to Dr. Monica Hanna and her colleagues, the Egypt’s Heritage Task Force: الحملة المجتمعية للرقابة على التراث والأثار is keeping us updated on what’s going on. Still, much more needs to be done.

“We are losing a lot of the monastic graffiti (Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian and Demotic) and several other archaeological features. Egyptian history is being destroyed…The Egyptian government should take concrete steps to stop the looting and vandalism.” Dr. Hanna told SAFE.

We join Dr. Hanna to call on journalists and bloggers who write about these issues to keep their attention on Egypt. Spread the message that destruction of cultural heritage is a nonrenewable loss to us all that no one should tolerate, regardless of who one is or where one lives.

Looting at Ansina About the looting going on in Ansina, Egypt’s Heritage Task Force posted earlier today, “thugs today worked on destroying the main basilica of the site with the use of a bulldozer while the rest of the gang worked on dismantling the columns capitals to sell them. It is worth mentioning that The Italian mission has discovered a lot of manuscripts where looting happened today.

This alarming photo is only one of many from Egypt’s Heritage Task Force. Contact Dr. Hanna at monica_h@aucegypt.edu for more on-the-ground and up-to-date information.

Monica Hanna to receive 2014 SAFE Beacon Award

The archaeologist Dr. Monica Hanna will be the next recipient of the SAFE Beacon Award for her exemplary efforts in shedding light on the looting situation in Egypt.

Home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations, Egypt has had a profound influence on the cultures of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. For centuries, Egyptian archaeological sites have been looted – most recently to feed the black market trade of antiquities. Despite valiant calls for recovery, invaluable information about Egypt’s ancient past – and our shared history – has been irretrievably lost. Since the 2011 revolution, this situation has become increasingly acute.

While mainstream media reports about the nature and extent of the damage – and those responsible for the damage – have been numerous and sometimes conflicting, we can be thankful for the efforts of “ordinary” Egyptians who have joined together to use social media to keep the rest of the world informed about what is happening to Egypt’s heritage, our shared heritage.

Using social media tools to their fullest potential, Dr. Hanna created and steadfastly maintains Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, while also contributing to other social media platforms. She continues to inform us in lectures and interviews, and she mobilizes others to do the same. In fact, it is impossible for anyone truly concerned about the critical situation in Egypt not to be informed by Dr. Hanna’s dedicated and diligent reporting. This past August, SAFE intern Beatrice Kelly included a small part of Dr. Hanna’s documentation in “How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?” and noted:

Indefatigable Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has been single-handedly exposing an incredible amount of looting in Egypt, even going so far as to confront some of the armed looters herself.

And we are paying attention.

With more than than 20,000 followers on Twitter, Dr. Hanna is an inspiration. No wonder Betsy Hiel of the Tribune-Review writes, “Hanna is a leader in exposing the looting of Egyptian antiquities.” Nigel Hetherington of Past Preservers describes her as, “amazing …a revolutionary in the true sense of the word.”

SAFE is honored to present the 2014 Beacon Award to Monica Hanna. In the coming months, we will continue to highlight Dr. Hanna’s important work and roll out our plans for celebration. Please follow us on Facebook and subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates.

March 21, 2014 UPDATE: Information about the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award can be found here. Dr Hanna’s Twitter followers number more than 28,000.


The SAFE Beacon Awards recognizes outstanding achievement in raising public awareness about our endangered cultural heritage and the devastating consequences of the illicit antiquities trade. Since 2004, awards have been presented to authors, journalists, professors, law enforcement professionals, and archaeologists:

2004 – Roger Atwood

2005 – Matthew Bogdanos 

2006 – Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini

2008 – Neil Brodie and Donny George

2009 – Colin Renfrew

2010 – Robert Goldman, David Hall, James McAndrew, and Robert Wittman

2011 - Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

2012 – David Gill

Confrontations: A Young Boy’s Temptation

SAFE blog’s new series “Confrontations” invites everyone to share firsthand experiences with looting and the illicit antiquities trade. These personal accounts will illustrate the on-going problems of these issues within a global context. 


When I was young, before I gained an interest in archaeology and the ancient world, my knowledge of artefacts was merely limited to the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Though having such knowledge at a young age was purely overwhelming, especially for a young boy like myself in a country enriched with an ancient past spanning over thousands of years, it understandably got me into a lot of trouble.

Till this day, I still look back to the 1990s, when I nearly ventured into the sinister world of the illicit antiquities trade, with conflicting thoughts of morality. For a person trying to feed his or her family, on one side, there is sympathy for the person’s actions. However, on the other, there is real pent-up anger towards that person as he or she is either destroying or illegally selling what represents a valuable past that we can truly learn from.

Now, you are wondering what happened to me back in the 90s…? How did I nearly enter the uncharted waters of such illicitness that has haunted me to this present day?

It all happened during the summer holidays, when my family decided to travel to Egypt for two weeks. Unlike being expected to visit Cairo, explore the pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings, and perhaps take a relaxing boat ride down the Nile river, we ended up in Sharm el-Sheikh that, for us Brits, was a stereotypically ideal place for a family vacation.

A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh's Old Market, Egypt A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh’s Old Market, Egypt
Flickr user Kareny13 (taken: 25/11/2010)

During our time, we went to Sharm el-Sheikh’s infamous old market on numerous occasions. The market was infused with a magical eastern vibe, various smells of spices and incense, Arabic music, and the haggling of goods, and it made me feel like I was in sheer heaven. With the exception of seeing dead carcasses dangling on every rack, there was one particular part of the market that ended my blissful experience.

Hidden away in the distance, I remember seeing an outline of this rugged man standing next to a stall with a large quantity of ancient coins. These coins looked as if though they had been recently removed from the ground… Though my Indiana Jones knowledge of artefacts proved to be limited, all I saw were these coins being beautifully displayed on this decaying wooden table.

Immediately, my whole body froze. Alarm bells were ringing. Warning signs were gathering in my head, trying to pull me away from the absolute power of these coins that continuously sparkled in my day-dreamt eyes. Yet like a child being let loose in a sweet shop, there was an irresistible urge to personally own such artefacts. This desire also lifted me off my feet, like a person floating off towards the mouth-watering smell of a delicious meal, and, within a matter of seconds, I found myself face to face with the very man who was standing right next to this collection of coins.

He appeared to be frail looking– shabbily dressed but presentable enough to look like a respectable business man. Suddenly, this man began to talk. At first, it was very unclear as to what exactly he was saying. He spoke in a mixture of Arabic and broken English, asking me if I wanted to buy priceless coins that had historical and archaeological significance.

“Hlan wa sahlan! Kayfa Halak? Taf-fadal! Special price! Coins came earlier today for you my friend. What do you want?”

At this time, I was gob-smacked.  Was this man talking to me? Was I that special someone to whom he was offering a special price…? I looked around and saw that I was the only bystander facing his direction. How could this be? Why were other people purposely avoiding this man?

Obviously, there were many reasons behind this. One could have been that that he was coming from outside the city, and therefore the locals did not know him. Another reason could have been that he was a dodgy character selling illegal artefacts, and it was thus unwise to get involved in his business.

As a young boy, it was likely that my understanding of the illicit antiquities trade was non-existent. I had never had a confrontation like that before in my life– not until that day. If I had bought a coin from that man, who knows what could have happened to me. According to Egyptian law (1983 LPA), all antiquities – be they cultural, historical or archaeological – are strictly regulated and actually owned by the State; and if  I was caught red-handed by a police officer, I could have gone to prison for my involvement, and I would not have a great life ahead of me.

While those very thoughts were in my mind, I felt a heavy hand placed on my right shoulder. My shadow began to amplify, and a low voice began to speak out from nowhere.

“Michael!…Stop what you are doing Shamah Junior! You are meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend!”

Without a doubt, I recognised that quote from one of the Indiana Jones Trilogies, The Raiders of the Lost Ark… (The best Indian Jones film that was ever made, I must say), and I knew exactly who it was.

I looked round and saw my father, looking stereotypically Middle Eastern with an Arab moustache, his big body with broad shoulders, and with very tanned skin; indeed, he was known for using film quotes in his sentences.

Without a word, I was tugged away, leaving this unfortunate man behind, not knowing where he would be in the course of time.

Me at a young age, back in the 1990s Me at a young age, back in the 1990s
Michael Shamah

As stated earlier, I still look back to that exact scene in Sharm el-Sheikh’s old market. In addition, you will find me exploring and dealing with similar confrontations in the upcoming blogs– especially those regarding the desecrations of various sites, or, as in this particular instance, a confrontation with a person selling a priceless artefact which has “illegal” written all over it.

Since this first experience, I have had conflicting thoughts, a broader understanding of the illicit world, and I am better at recognising potential signs of looting or at least something illicit. As an archaeologist, I have begun to care more about the preservation of cultural heritage, and it has been rather upsetting to think of how sites which convey significant cultural and historical meaning, have been affected by human activity. Although in the eyes of some, these actions might be considered as a good thing… It is now understandable why these motives take place.

Especially in an unstable Middle East – which I am quite familiar with, due to my heritage and the focusing of my speciality in this specific region – and for sectarian, political or economic reasons, countless sites have, unfortunately, been targeted. Nevertheless, as seen from my first encounter, there are some sheer beauties of the past that attract potentially irrational visitors who may just want to fill their pockets.

From what consequently ends up in the illicit antiquities trade, this beautiful memorabilia of the past has become absorbed into a sinister world which is loathed by most of us.

Thus, I would like to end this blog with the very questions that hang in the back of my mind.
What were the motives behind the act? Were they rational?

But also, what may be seen as an act for survival or greed and is believed by some as a person’s worst nightmare,  it may sequentially be seen by others as a heavenly treasure trove.

If you have had similar experiences that you would like to share, it would be great to hear from you; and for my next shareable experience…Stay tuned. 

Egyptian Ambassador: A critical challenge for cultural preservation

The following is posted at the request of the Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik. 


Dear friend,

Many of you have been instrumental in launching unforgettable exhibitions that explored Egypt’s rich history. Thanks to you, millions of Americans have a special relationship with and fascination for my country’s unique contribution to human civilization, shaped over the course of generations. So many young minds have been stimulated by these exhibits with questions of who are these people and how did they create this? For our children’s sake, we need to keep these experiences and opportunities accessible to everyone.

Considering your interest in preserving and promoting Egypt’s cultural heritage, I wanted to share with you a recent article written for the Washington Post by Egypt’s Minister for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim. In it, he called on the United States and its citizens to help Egypt combat theft of historical and archaeological treasures, a worrisome trend exacerbated by Egypt’s current security situation. He also requests vigilance from auction houses and other cultural institutions that may come across suspect items. Minister Ibrahim reminds us all that, “It is our common duty, in Egypt and around the world, to defend our shared heritage.”

I would welcome your thoughts on how we, as a community that cares about Egypt’s treasures, can raise awareness of these tragic incidents and prevent further harm.  I would also encourage you to spread the word about antiquities thefts through social media. As popular institutions, simply engaging your audience can be a first step to help stop the theft of Egyptian antiquities.

Should you have any questions in this matter, don’t hesitate to email the embassy at Culturalheritage@egyptembassy.net

Thank you again for your dedication to the people, history and culture of Egypt at this especially sensitive moment.

Mohamed Tawfik
Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt
Washington DC

Interested in interning at SAFE? Just do it. Here’s why…

For the last three months I’ve been interning at Saving Antiquities for Everyone, and the experience has been absolutely incredible. I’ve always been interested in the issues surrounding stolen art, but it wasn’t until I began working at SAFE that I realized how devastating an impact looting has on our understanding of past societies. While a stolen painting can be recovered and the case closed, an object looted from an archaeological site has forever lost its primary significance. Context is the most crucial means through which an artifact communicates information about the past, and a looted object is stripped of its contextual information, doomed to be just another pretty part of someone’s collection.

While interning this summer, I worked on a number of different projects dealing with the looting of cultural heritage, each equally fulfilling. I boosted SAFE’s following on Twitter, conducted a market analysis of Egyptian and Syrian antiquities, blogged about cultural heritage (including posts on the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum and an innovative new campaign to fund preservation of a site in Lebanon). One of my blog posts on the potential benefits of a museum of fake antiquities started a fantastic dialogue on LinkedIn, and I hope that SAFE can continue to serve as a place for furthering new ideas. My favorite project this summer was the Say YES to Egypt cover photo campaign, which has now reached almost one thousand supporters. I’m still working on a survey to measure students’ awareness of looting (stay tuned for results in January!), and a country overview that will inform the public about the state of looting in Egypt.

I have learned an incredible amount on each one of these projects, and the learning curve has definitely been steep! As a student, I’m definitely no expert on antiquities or looting, but I came in with a passion for cultural heritage and have (hopefully!) left with a deeper understanding of exactly how we can save it. I’m especially grateful to everyone who has responded to my blog posts, both positively and critically, because opening a dialogue has been incredibly helpful and fulfilling. We’re all on the same side working towards a future without looting, and every person who joins the cause brings us a step closer to saving our global heritage.

If you are interested in interning at SAFE, contact us now for the next cycle of internships (deadline October 1st). You need to be deeply passionate about heritage and a self-starter when it comes to tackling new projects, but with those two qualities, your internship will not only be a fantastic experience for you, but an incredible contribution to saving antiquities – for everyone!

How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?

In an atmosphere of general unrest and lack of control or safety provided by government, looting frequently rises to unprecedented levels as those desperate for quick cash plunder from the coffers of our global heritage. However, it is not the looters who stand to gain the most from such a timely situation, but rather the collectors who are able to add another invaluable piece to their collections, ripped from the fabric of civilization.

Yet even before the events of the Arab Spring raged across the Middle East and enraptured the world, the market for Syrian and Egyptian antiquities was booming. Many lots (objects for sale at auctions) were selling for above their estimated prices, with one pair of carved stone capitals from Syria selling for GBP 313,250 – more than five times its pre-sale estimate of GBP 60,000. With no provenance at all listed in the lot’s record, it’s incredible that a collector would nevertheless spend over a quarter of a million pounds on artifacts that could have been illicitly excavated or exported.

My process

I was curious as to how the looting and destruction that swept the Middle East during the Arab Spring might have impacted sales of Egyptian and Syrian antiquities, so I decided to compare pre-2011 and post-2011 sales in the hopes that this would shed some light on the issue.

I conducted this research both online and in libraries, accessing catalogues from past auctions from the Sotheby’s and Christie’s websites, as well as in the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. and the National Art Library in London. I found the websites quite difficult to navigate, and it feels as though the online catalogues are there for casual perusing rather than serious research. There is no means of collating relevant items or auctions, and the information listed online leaves quite a lot to be desired.

Techniques used by auction houses

sothebys Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

Many of the artifacts, like the stone capitals described above, have no provenance listed, or will have an incredibly sparse record, like this Syrian limestone head which was simply “acquired prior to 1987” or this basalt torso of Herakles “said to have been found prior to World War II” (both pieces auctioned in 2010). The Herakles statue sold for 230,000 USD, twice its estimate. Many other pieces sold for over their estimates, indicating that a healthy appetite for Egyptian and Syrian artifacts still exists.

One of the thinnest provenances I saw was simply a listing of previous auctions, as if having made it through the system once before is enough proof that an artifact is fair game to be auctioned again. (If you’re interested in seeing some of these techniques in action, check out any catalogues from auctions of antiquities at Sotheby’s or Christie’s and you will quickly come across them.)

I had hoped that perhaps things would have improved after the events of 2011, but this was not the case. Provenance listings were no more specific or accurate than they had been previously, and there was no indication from any major auction house that they were taking into account the uncertainty in the Middle East when it came to acquiring objects for auction. In auctions taking place immediately after the Arab Spring, there were no reassuring notices placed in the front of the glossy antiquities catalogues confirming that the auction house had ensured the legality of all pieces (although perhaps they had — I’m not making accusations, just observations).

Even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

Another way auction houses shift attention from an artifact’s physical origins to its aesthetic qualities is by listing multiple countries as the possible place of creation. As Colin Renfrew explains in Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, having an unclear place of origin prevents any one country from laying claim to the item. Moreover, even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are obviously no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

I had expected to see a huge increase in the number of items placed for sale following the 2011 revolutions. However, there actually appears to have been no increase, which surprised me. Auction activity was relatively uniform from 2009 to 2013. Had there actually not been any items looted during the general state of instability and anarchy that seized much of the region? My suspicion is that these objects just haven’t had enough time to reach the international market. Looting is absolutely happening, as evidenced by photographs of sites speckled with large holes and scattered artifacts.

Evidence for looting

Indefatigable Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has been single-handedly exposing an incredible amount of looting in Egypt, even going so far as to confront some of the armed looters herself. Hanna sent me some pictures of the landscape at Abu Sir el-Malaq, where looters have left behind piles of ravaged bones and mummies in favor of more saleable and attractive artifacts. This is just some of the damage that she has documented at that site:

abu sir el malaq 4 Bones left behind as looters uncover graves
abu sir el malaq 3 A child carries an artifact tossed aside by looters
abu sir el malaq 2 Archaeologists survey the damage at Abu Sir el-Malaq
abu sir el malaq 1 The pockmarked lunar landscape left by looters

The reality is that looting is definitely happening in Egypt. We haven’t yet seen these artifacts reach a public market, but they are out there. Or — even worse — as the events of the last week have shown, stolen artifacts may have actually been destroyed by those who took them, like we saw at the Malawi Museum. Hanna herself was at the Malawi Museum when looters stormed its doors, and defended its treasures against armed attackers. Some of the artifacts taken have since been returned, but hundreds remain missing, and it is possible that many of those still at large have been irreparably destroyed.

Trafficking Culture, a research programme into the global trade of looted artifacts based at the University of Glasgow, advocates using Google Earth as a means of tracking looting. This screenshot from Google Maps seems to show holes dug by looters south of the Great Pyramids at Giza:

Giza Holes

Conclusion

There has yet to be a “boom” in the number of Near Eastern antiquities for sale because dealers can afford to wait. As demonstrated by the mere existence of the Swiss Freeport (and its shameful role in Giacomo Medici’s looting empire, documented in The Medici Conspiracy), it’s fairly easy to have such a backlog of illicitly obtained items so as to not need to immediately sell newly acquired ones. Moreover, dealers aren’t dumb: they know that flooding the market with unprovenanced antiquities not only looks suspicious, but also will devalue each item as supply increases. Just as the Mugrabi family carefully plays the market to keep Warhol’s value high, so antiquities dealers know when to buy and when to sell.

It is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws.

Tess Davis, a member of the “Trafficking Culture” project, is researching the process that many artifacts go through as they are essentially smuggled into legitimacy. It will be interesting to see the conclusions that her research yields, and I hope that it will shed some light on the process that looted artifacts have — and are still — undoubtedly been going through for the past two years.

Even searching for something as simple as “Egyptian antiquity” on eBay turns up multiple results for unprovenanced objects. While it is very likely that these are fakes rather than looted originals, it is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws, UNESCO or otherwise. (Luckily, UCLA archaeologist Charles Stanish believes that eBay’s large selection of fakes is actually helping to stop looting, estimating that 95 percent of the archaeological artifacts listed on eBay are forgeries).

“The only Good Collector is an ex-Collector.” – Colin Renfrew

The idea of a benevolent collector has been problematized many times, including by Renfrew, who concludes that “the only Good Collector is an ex-Collector” (Public Archaeology, 2000). Renfrew does not have a problem with the act of collecting (identifying Old Master paintings and cigarette cards as hypothetical items exempt from his condemnation), but rather the practice of collecting specifically unprovenanced antiquities. But beyond just provenance, are there other issues at hand when it comes to looting and sales?

My conclusion is not that this research proves that the sale of Middle Eastern antiquities is out of control due to a single incident or period of conflict (as satisfying a conclusion as that would have been). Rather, it is that the looting specifically is out of control. It is likely that some will make the counter-argument that until we see these artifacts on the market, there is nothing we can do, or perhaps even that until such objects turn up at an auction, there isn’t any real proof that damage to the cultural record is happening.

This is wrong - looting is happening now, and without more awareness, it will continue to happen until there is nothing left to be learned from the decontextualized and ravaged objects. Monica Hanna told me that “raising awareness is really what we need,” so please help SAFE spread the word. A community on Facebook called Egypt’s Heritage Task Force has done a tremendous amount of work to track and stop looting and destruction of heritage sites, and it is that cooperation that we will continue to need in the coming months.

You can also join SAFE’s latest campaign, Say Yes to Egypt, and read more about our efforts to raise awareness about the looting going on in Egypt here.

Why we care about the cultural heritage of Egypt – now.

Originally posted on February 6, 2011, the following is reposted as a reminder of why we Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage! (Photo: Egypt’s Heritage Task Force: الحملة المجتمعية للرقابة على التراث والأثار )


No one knows what the future holds for Egypt. Our hearts and hopes are with the Egyptian people as they struggle toward genuine democracy. The first priority now must be the country’s stability, its citizens, their safety, their dignity.

While politicians work out ways to address the demands of the people, attention must also be focused on efforts to protect Egypt’s ancient cultural heritage, out of respect for the Egyptian people and all citizens around the world. Some may think this premature, even insensitive. We don’t. Here’s why:

– As the current government in Cairo gives way to a new political regime, and Egypt begins the process of renewal, it is essential that cultural heritage of the people – the touchstone of their cultural memory and identity - remains intact. We must work together to ensure that the new Egypt is not built on the rubble of robbed museums and plundered tombs.

– Also, protecting and preserving cultural heritage is now recognized as a key development priority for all nations: If we are truly concerned about Egypt’s social, political and economic future, we should strongly support the protection of their museums and heritage sites.

– The ancient and sacred structures and artifacts that make up the cultural heritage of Egypt represent the ultimate non-renewable resource. The world community must do everything it can to protect these treasures for all humanity and prevent irreparable damage that may that result in the destruction of ancient sites and loss of materials.

Join SAFE in solidarity for the people of Egypt and their cultural heritage.

 

Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage!

Egypt is in a state of turmoil. Life is lost while the people of Egypt continue to fight for democracy and freedom. But while the safety of human life is our first priority, there is another aspect of humanity that we must not forget: Egypt’s cultural heritage. Why? Because “wars end, and shattered lives, communities and societies must be rebuilt.” (Nature, Vol 423, 29 May 2003). In the last few days, the situation has drastically worsened: the Mallawi Museum has been looted, churches are being burned, archaeological sites and museums have been closed indefinitely and the lands surrounding the pyramids at Giza and Dahshur remains peppered with holes dug by looters.

Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur's Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel. Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur’s Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel.
While the situation remains chaotic, what can we do? 

SAFE has launched its “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” campaign, and I invite you to join us, right now.

Here’s how:

  1. Set and share your Facebook profile image with the “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” image at the top left corner.
  2. Set and share your Facebook cover photo with the “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” banner at the bottom of this post. (Please be patient, Facebook servers are busy.)
  3. Tweet the message “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” with #sayyestoegypt! (Don’t forget to tweet us at @saveantiquities)
  4. Join the Say YES to Egypt Cause page here and stand with  thousands of other individuals pledging their support of Egypt’s cultural heritage
  5. Spread the news about this campaign, like and share this post

Let’s come together and do something to show solidarity for the people of Egypt. Raise awareness about the urgent risks to one of humanity’s greatest legacies. So please join me and SAFE to show the world that we are all saying yes to Egypt’s heritage because it is our heritage.

Neil Brodie: It is no surprise that the looting continues.

We thank Neil Brodie for joining pur 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with the following statement. Dr. Brodie, an author of “Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response” with Colin Renfrew, is a SAFE Beacon Award Winner in 2008.


Ten years ago, in 2003, I was reading a lot about the looting of archaeological sites and museums in Iraq. I was writing a bit about it too. At the time, I was research director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, which had been established five years earlier, partly in response to the archaeological looting that had followed the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq was firmly on my agenda, but Iraq wasn’t the only country in the news — for several years Afghanistan had been dominating headlines and the J. Paul Getty Museum’s 1999 return of three objects to Italy was a portent of things to come. In the decade following 2003, the developing Italian campaign to recover looted objects from museums drew attention away from Iraq, and over the past few years Iraq has been all but forgotten as archaeological site looting has gained hold in Syria and Egypt, and in the museum world attention has shifted to acquisitions of illicitly-traded artifacts from Cambodia and India.

Looking back, one thing is clear. The effort and resources put into protecting Iraqi sites during the 2000s have done nothing to help protect Syrian and Egyptian sites in the 2010s. Similarly, whatever international response can be mobilised now to protect sites on the ground in Syria will do nothing to protect sites in the next country along. Nor will it do anything to protect sites in Iraq. (Has the looting actually stopped in Iraq? If so, why? If not, why isn’t it being reported and what is being done about it?) The response to archaeological looting seems reactive, working on a country-by-country basis, but this is not enough. Looting will never be controlled by on-the-ground site protection, which is much too expensive and usually a case of too little too late. Looting will only be curtailed by adequate policies of trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand, not supply.

There is an uneasy sense that the reactive response to looting is media-led, and probably for good reason. The most revealing, insightful and ultimately influential studies of the antiquities trade have been by journalists. I could name them here but they know who they are, so I will spare their blushes. The best reporting of site looting in Iraq was also by journalists. But while media research is good, it is also transient and its impact on public policy is limited. Policy makers look for hard empirical evidence and coherent reasoned arguments. Whether rightly or wrongly, they turn to academic and other professional experts. Yet there is only a small handful of archaeologists, museum curators, art historians, lawyers and criminologists who make it their business to investigate the antiquities trade, and despite the high-profile media reporting of the past ten years, the number and identities of the people involved haven’t changed much. The appropriate experts have failed to mobilise in numbers adequate for the job at hand. The inadequate response of the archaeological community has been particularly regrettable in this regard. Many archaeologists are quick to complain about looting but slow to engage in work of any kind that might help towards a solution. It is easier for them to point the finger at museums.

“Looting will only be curtailed by adequate policies of trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand, not supply.”

One reason for this seeming failure of scholarship is that research needs to be multidisciplinary, which is difficult in a university environment where different subjects often seem to speak different languages, and where career-enhancing “excellence” is more easily assessed in well-worn disciplinary paradigms. Another reason is that high quality information about the trade is not forthcoming. Several scholars have produced good ethnographic studies of looters or subsistence diggers at source, but there is nothing comparable for demand — no ethnographic reporting of rich and powerful collectors in their native habitats of Beverly Hills or wherever. Presumably these collectors and their confederates are lawyered-up and easily able to deflect academic enquiry in a way that the people who actually do the digging aren’t. This is a sorry reflection on the self-professed “objectivity” and “disinterest” of academic research, which instead exhibits a clear and understandable self-interested desire to avoid unproductive legal quagmires. But it does highlight one of the problems associated with information gathering.

Another problem is the withholding of information. I am asked on almost a weekly basis by journalists what evidence there is of Syrian artifacts appearing on the open market. I don’t know. I don’t even know whether or not Syrian artifacts are appearing on the open market. I do know that a lot of Iraqi material never appeared on the open market. While I was writing this piece, AFP quoted an Iraqi source reporting that the United States and Iraq had reached agreement over the return of more than 10,000 artifacts that had somehow made their way into the United States over the past ten years. Perhaps in the the year 2023 AFP will be reporting the return of 10,000 Syrian artifacts, at which point I will be happy to answer questions about Syrian artifacts on the market, though by then of course, media attention will have moved on. No one has asked me about the recent AFP announcement — Iraq is last decade’s news. But there is a more serious point. Assuming the source is reliable, AFP also reported that the two sides had agreed not to reveal how the artifacts came to be in the United States. Why not? Perhaps because Syrian artifacts are travelling through similar channels and seizures are imminent? Or perhaps instead because someone has something to hide. With no mention of any arrests or indictments the latter explanation seems more likely. Is there a cover-up?

While information about the acquisition and exchange of illicitly-traded artifacts is suppressed or witheld it inhibits productive research into the trade and ultimately the formulation of novel and progressive policy aimed at constraining demand. Without such research, the fall-back position is for globally-ineffective local interventions, ameliorating symptoms but not tackling the cause. It is no surprise that the looting continues.

Not just Egypt’s loss…

Egypt’s rich and ancient history has been standing for over 5000 years, as evidenced by the great pyramids.  Who would suspect that it could ever be threatened?  In actuality, looters have been picking away at the antiquities of Egypt for thousands of years, like ocean waves lapping at the base of an intricate sand castle.  Recently, however, there has been a disconcerting uptick in this attack on our world’s shared culture.

Political unrest in Egypt has set the stage for loss of control over the land’s artifacts.  According to U.C. Berkeley archaeologist Carol Redmount, who has been excavating and examining sites in Egypt for over 20 years, the increased looting of these archaeological sites began when former President Mubarak was forced to leave the country in early 2011 and has not slowed in the year and a half since.

During the regime change, many police, military personnel, and local guards were re-deployed to deal with the intense rioting.  Some even walked off the job.  Consequently cultural sites, precious artifacts, museums, and tombs were left unprotected.  In June 2012, Dr. Redmount invited NBC News Richard Engel to ride with her through Al-Heba, a town 180 miles south of Cairo where she has been working, so that he could see for himself the extent of this wanton destruction.  Here, at one tomb site, the entire hillside had been dug up in hundreds of places by looters.  On the ground were randomly discarded mummified bodies that had been unearthed in the race for anticipated treasures.

Temple of Luxor
Microsoft.com Stock Photos
The Temple of Luxor

South of Cairo is not the only area where this is transpiring.  Thieves have even looted areas around the Great Pyramids in Giza and the Luxor temples, reports Major-General Abdel-Rahim Hassan, commander of the Tourism and Antiquities Police Department.

In May 2012, Egyptian police arrested two men for digging a 10-meter deep hole under their homes, which were just behind the temple of Khnum in the southern town of Esna, There police found hieroglyphic inscriptions dating back to the Ptolemaic dynasty and ancient clay pots.  Had these artifacts been removed and sold illegally, both Egypt and the world community would have lost another irreplaceable piece of its history.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry has reported 5697 cases of illegal digging since the anti-Mubarak uprising began shortly into 2011.  This is a shocking 100 times more than the previous year.  During this time, illegal trading in antiquities has mushroomed to 1467 cases.  According to the AP, these are only the cases that the Interior Ministry was able to track down.

With so little manpower to staunch the flow of antiquities out of Egypt, this situation continues to grow worse.   Amid political turmoil, a recent disputed election, and police and military personnel preoccupied elsewhere, what can be done to protect and preserve the ancient Egyptian culture?

Egypt’s loss is our loss because Egypt’s history is an integral part of our global history.  We need to act.  As SAFE continues to expand its influence and be joined by archaeological activists and patrons, we will work to support local government organizations like the Interior Ministry and the Tourism and Antiquities Police Department to stem this illegal activity and to provide security for Egypt’s antiquities. Join our cause on Facebook and Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage.

Howard Carter and his discovery of King Tut’s tomb…what if?

One of the easiest ways to think about the damaging effects of looting ancient sites is to consider what we stand to lose. Or simply put: what if?

In celebration of Howard Carter’s 138th birthday and his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, a most important point should not be forgotten: what we now know about the young king would be impossible had tomb robbers found the coffin first.

In a 2005 Dig Magazine article, Adrienne J. Donovan of SAFE wrote:

In ancient times, robbers entered Tutankhamun’s tomb twice, but not his coffin. They took what was most valuable at the time, unguents and oils. After it was covered by rubble from the cutting of another tomb, Tut’s tomb was left untouched until Howard Carter began digging in 1922. It is the intactness of the finds and of Tut’s untouched mummy that have allowed the young king to be so well understood today.

 

Untouched by tomb raiders, the artifacts in King Tut’s intact tomb continue to stimulate public interest in ancient Egypt. Rather than “beautiful but dumb”*, the objects speak volumes about the ancient world in general. Among the many possibilities this wealth of information brings, technology can now even deduce what King Tut looked like, impossible to achieve had his tomb been plundered and its contents traded in the illicit antiquities trade

*Professor Clemency Coggins used the term to describe archaeological objects removed out of context. Professor Coggins of Boston University has worked on problems of Cultural Property preservation and law since 1968. She served on the US committee involved in drafting the 1970 UNESCO convention, and worked many years for the US ratification and implementation of the Convention.

Egypt’s ownership claim of Ka-Nefer-Nefer slammed, or may be not…

The St. Louis Museum of Art (SLAM) filed a complaint in federal district court on February 15, 2011 asking for a declaratory judgment to prevent federal authorities from seizing a 19th Dynasty Egyptian mask popularly known as Ka-Nefer-Nefer.

The mask, excavated at Saqqara in 1952 by Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, was sold to SLAM in 1998 by Phoenix Ancient Art in Geneva. According to the New York Times, in 2006 Egypt first claimed that the mask was stolen and asked the museum to return it; and in 2008, U.S. Department of Homeland Security was “looking into the case.” While the museum insists that there is no documentation to prove that Ka-Nefer-Nefer is Egyptian property, stolen, or smuggled, many think otherwise. In a comment to our post, Dr. Peter Lacovara wrote:

The St. Louis Art Museum was informed by me soon after the purchase of that Mask that it came from Goneim’s excavations, was published and where, and that although it was not registered in the Cairo Museums’ inventory, the only means by which it could have legally left Egypt was if it had been retained by Goniem and later legally sold by him or his heirs and they would need to investigate this. They did not.

Another telling fact is that the name of the owner of the mask Ka-nefer-nefer was written in hieratic on the hand of mask and was scratched out and over painted to disguise its identity. If this were a painting published in a European catalog no one would dream of trying to justify keeping it without a clear and legitimate history. The Museum never undertook due diligence in trying to determine the provenance of this piece despite being told there was a cloud over it from the beginning.

They have no justification in retaining this mask and it should be returned to Egypt and the Museum should underwrite the cost of a conservator removing the over paint and restoring the inscription on the hand.

When SAFECORNER asked in an informal poll last March what should happen with the lawsuit, the results were:

  • 26% said “SLAM should continue legal action in federal court.”
  • 46% said “SLAM should produce documentation proving that the mask was legally exported from Egypt.”
  • 45% said “SLAM should acknowledge Egypt’s claim of ownership.”
  • 25% said “SLAM should drop the lawsuit.”

The curious case of St Louis Art Museum vs the United States may have just become “curiouser and curiouser” with the U.S. District Court’s dismissal of the government’s effort to forfeit the disputed Ka Nefer Nefer mask, but what about the case of St. Louis Art Museum vs public opinion?

According to Associated Press,

U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said a decision on whether to appeal has not been made.

“We’re just looking to make sure we haven’t missed the tiniest bit of circumstantial evidence,” Callahan said. “We’re back to the drawing board and studying it.”

Meanwhile, the SLAM Attorney Linenbroker is said to be confident “we’re the rightful owner.”

The American Association of Museum (AAM) Code of Ethics for Museums says that a museum must make a “unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world.” How is the public served in the case of Ka-Nefer-Nefer? What do you think?

Add your voice to our latest poll: Should the St. Louis Art Museum return the disputed Ka-Nefer-Nefer funeral mask to Egypt?

Photo: AP