Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ankhhaf and Boston

The bust of Ankhhaf was excavated by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Egyptian Expedition at Giza in 1925 (Dows Dunham, "The portrait bust of Ankh-haf", Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts 37 (1939), 42-46). The sculpture was assigned to the Expedition by the Director-General of the Department of Antiquities in April 1927. The collecting history is made clear on Boston's website (inv. 27.442).
Ankhhaf is unique, and by the terms of the Museum's contract with the Egyptian government, he should have gone to the Cairo Museum. However, he was awarded to Boston by the Antiquities Service in gratitude for the Harvard-Boston Expedition's painstaking work to excavate and restore objects from the tomb of Queen Hetepheres.
In other words the bust was not looted; it was excavated. It was not removed from Egypt by illicit means; it was assigned to Boston.

Geoff Edgers now reports on Egypt's hope for the return of Ankhhaf ("Fragile, don’t touch", Boston.com August 14, 2011). Zahi Hawass made a claim on the statue in 2005, and Mohamed Saleh has now identified a space for Ankhhaf in the new Egyptian Museum. Edgers reminds us:
The bust of Ankhhaf was given to the MFA by a previous Egyptian government, so the current government has no legal case. Any appeal must be made on moral grounds: that the piece is part of Egypt’s patrimony, and belongs at home.
In other words, Ankhhaf is so important to the study of Egyptology that it should reside in Egypt. Patty Gerstenblith was asked to comment: "There is no way Ankhhaf should be lumped with something that was illegally obtained ... But there may be times when a country wants something back even when it was given and obtained legitimately." Edgers also comments on Hawass who mistakenly described the statue as "stolen".

Edgers rightly reminds us of the conservation issues relating to Ankhhaf. Is it in the interests of this "unique" piece to transport it to Egypt even as a temporary loan?

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Marc Fehlmann said...

The question here is: Why talk of moral grounds?

The UNESCO-Convention clearly states under Article 5 that States Parties to this Convention (like Egypt) ensure the protection of their cultural property against illicit import; export and transfer of ownership and

establish and keep up to date, on the basis of a national inventory of protected'property, a list of important public and private cultural property whose export would constitute an appreciable impoverishment of the national cultural heritage;

(c) promote the development or the establishment of scientific and technical institutions (museums, libraries, archives, laboratories, workshops . . . ) required to ensure the preservation and presentation of cultural property;

(d) organize the supervision of archaeological excavations, ensuring the preservation `in situation' of certain cultural property, and protecting certain areas reserved for future archaeological research ...

I do not see how Zahi Hawass' claim on the statue of Ankh-haf fulfills this obligation. I also do not understand why Geoff Edgers talks of "moral grounds" when probably nothing else than self-promotion and politics (by Hawass and his successors, not G. Edgers) are at stake.

Why does one have to fall again and again into this nationalistic trap? Would it not be more sensible to prevent current and future looting and to set up proper inventories of what is currently in source countries than to launch such a "hype"?

One should really think that the people of Egypt have other and more pressing issues to deal with right now.


If the idea in the last sentence were to be taken seriously, very few countries would ever claim their national cultural treasures. Can we think of one single country in the world now that did not at present have "other and more pressing issues to deal with right now"?


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