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Egypt retrieves ancient priest statue from Holland

Egypt has brought back an ancient statue of Nikaw-Ptah from Holland as the government works to recover many stolen antiquities from abroad.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

Egypt has recovered an ancient statue of a priest from the Old Kingdom that had been smuggled abroad.

On July 26, the Foreign Ministry handed over the artifact to the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

In a statement by the Ministry of Tourism, Shaaban Abdel Gawad, the supervisor of the ministry’s Department of Recovered Antiquities, said that the statue was put up for sale at the annual European Fine Art Fair in the city of Maastricht in the Netherlands.

Abdel Gawad explained that the statue was found to have been illegally taken out of Egypt. He pointed out that the statue was not found to be registered with the Supreme Council of Antiquities, which suggests that it was taken through illegal digging.

The legless statue depicts priest Nikaw-Ptah with his arms at his sides, wearing a short kilt and his name engraved on one arm.

In a phone call with Al-Monitor, Abdel Gawad said, “Egypt and many other countries that are rich in archeological treasures experience illegal excavation at archeological sites. Smuggled artifacts are not registered [at the Ministry of Antiquities records] but are by chance caught in auction halls [abroad], seized in international ports or airports.”

He explained that the pre-1983 laws allowed the trade in relics abroad through certificates issued by the government.

“It was not until 1983 that the government issued Law No. 117, which prohibited the antiquity trade and also banned the gifting or selling of relics, even to be taken abroad, except for temporary exhibitions,” Abdel Gawad added.

He went on to say that the ministry’s Department of Recovered Antiquities monitors all auctions involving Egyptian artifacts abroad, artifacts seized in international ports and those displayed in major museums.

“Egyptian antiquities were bought and sold until 1983, according to a law that regulated the process, on the condition that there were certificates for each piece," he explained. "Back then, the rules for the division of architectural finds stipulated that the archeological missions working in Egypt shared ownership of the antiquities with the Egyptian government. This was why a large number of relics were found in international museums. We are not calling for retrieving these because this was done according to the law. The Egyptian government is, however, investigating artifacts that left the country in an illegal manner.”

In 2014, 303 artifacts were recovered from around the world, including eight pieces from Denmark that had been stolen from the Ghanem al-Bahlawan Mosque in Cairo; an artifact stolen from the museum warehouse of the Saqqara region, which was smuggled to France; and a sandstone miniature of the Pyramid of Khufu, which was smuggled to Germany. The piece, which features a plaster image of two people bearing colorful offerings from the Pyramid of Khufu, was stolen from Sobekhotep’s tomb in Luxor and dates back to the era of Thutmose IV. 

Also in 2014, Egypt recovered 15 pieces from London that were stolen from the museum warehouse in Saqqara. One of these pieces included a piece of glass that had been stolen from the museum warehouse in Qantara in the country’s east. 

In 2014, Egypt was also successful in retrieving a glazed Ushabti statue dating back to the era of King Nectanebo II of the Third Dynasty. It was displayed in an auction hall in Paris.

From January 2017 to November 2017, Egypt recovered some 586 artifacts from around the world, including eight wooden boxes from London, and eight artifacts from Paris that included coffin parts, two statues of cats and a basalt sculpture of a human head. 

From January 2018 to November 2018, a total of 222 artifacts and 21,600 coins were retrieved from five countries. There were four pieces from the United States including an ancient gilded sarcophagus bought by the Metropolitan Museum in the United States from an antiquity dealer who did have a certificate issued from Egypt in 1971. Nine pieces were recovered from France, 14 from Cyprus, one from Kuwait, 195 artifacts and 21,660 coins from Italy. 

More recently, in June of this year, Egypt recovered 114 artifacts that had been looted and smuggled to France, in addition to three pieces from the United Kingdom that were illegally taken out of the country.

Abdel Rahim Rihan, director of the Archeological Studies and Research Department at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor, “There are international gangs backed by local funders who took advantage of the dire economic and social situation in Egypt after the 2011 revolution. This is not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to an economic crisis. This prompted many people to sell whatever they could get their hands on, especially artifacts.”

Rihan explained that the state has taken notice of the role of international gangs and last year amended 1983 law to punish those who form, join or help antiquity smugglers at home or abroad with a lifetime prison sentence.

Rihan also noted that antiquities uncovered in illegal excavations are not registered and very difficult to track down.

“Therefore, artifacts are displayed and sold in public auctions abroad. The parties that hold these auctions usually forge ownership certificates with the help of the smuggling gangs and groups that smuggle the pieces from one country to another. Therefore, it is imperative to verify all supporting documents of ownership from the source country,” he added.

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