Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Museum Thefts in Egypt: Antiquities for the Market

One of the key issues that has to be addressed is the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites to provide objects for the market. But another source is to steal items directly from museums and archaeological stores. In 2005 Jill Kamil ("Changing hands", Al-Ahram, 13-19 January 2005) drew attention to a series of thefts. These include:

From museums:
  • "619 Pharaonic artefacts, stolen from the Egyptian Museum in 2000 and smuggled to London via Switzerland"
  • "15 antiquities which had disappeared from the stores at the College of Fine Arts and the Maadi Museum, were up for auction in United Kingdom."
  • "In 1995, thieves burrowed through the wall of a storeroom used to house artefacts at the Temple of Montu in Karnak, and looted some 55 scarabs and statues."

From sites:
  • granite reliefs from the temple of Isis, Beihbet Al-Hegara. Surfaced at Christie's, New York 2002 and 2004.

Kamil makes the point:
Auction houses do not intentionally handle smuggled antiquities. But how many items in their lots may in fact come from questionable sources? It is hard to put a figure on it. Sometimes large collections arrive at auction with a precise and accurate history. Other times, the only reference made is to literature in which a "similar object" is described, or the museum in which a "similar object" is displayed. No provenance. No acquisition data.

Perhaps what is needed is a more rigorous "due diligence" process.

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