CAIRO — Egypt recently recovered another cache of smuggled antiquities, bringing attention once again to the challenges of protecting the country's ancient artifacts. Earlier this month, customs officers at Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates confiscated 354 artifacts dating from different eras of ancient Egyptian and Islamic civilization and handed them over to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.
The pieces are among thousands of antiquities that have been exported illegally from Egypt and put up for sale at global auction halls, including some reputable houses. Christie's New York auction house held an exhibition Oct. 25 to sell some 164 Egyptian artifacts, prompting Egyptian parliament member and TV host Mustafa Bakri to ask during his Oct. 27 show, Hakaek wa Asrar (Facts and Secrets), “Who is responsible for stealing and selling the Egyptian antiquities at international auctions?” He called for a campaign to recover such items.
Christie's has held other controversial auctions in the past. In December, numerous items were sold, including a bronze statue of the goddess Isis and her son Horus that fetched almost $1.4 million. The statue dated to 747-656 B.C. The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities tried but was unable to prevent the sale.
Nour Yahya, a tour guide and expert on Islamic monuments, told Al-Monitor, “The foreign passion for Egypt and the diversity of Egypt’s Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic civilizations has been and continues to be two strong motives behind the desire to acquire [artifacts] of this period of time. Add to this that ancient mosques are not appropriately protected, which leads to repeated robberies worsened by a lack of cooperation" between the Ministry of Antiquities and the Ministry of Endowments.
Saeed Helmi, the head of the Central Department of Islamic and Coptic Archaeology at the Ministry of Antiquities, told Al-Monitor, “All of the Islamic movable antiquities have been registered in the archaeological records [as of] early 2017, as recommended by the Permanent Committee for Islamic and Coptic Antiquities.”
He added, "The Ministry of State for Antiquities started installing cameras over the past few months to monitor and protect mosques against theft amid the lack of sufficient security personnel." Since 2001, the ministry has monitored 57 cases of theft of movable antiquities in mosques, but only 20 cases have been resolved, he said. Also, those exhibiting the smuggled pieces at auction halls take advantage of the wide scope of the Muslim civilization, which makes it difficult to prove that the pieces belong to Egypt.
Egyptian law bans the acquisition, sale or offering of Egyptian antiquities inside or outside of Egypt, except under the supervision of antiquities authorities. Yet antiquities smuggling is rampant. Many people blame what they consider to be weak punitive measures: a fine of 1 million Egyptian pounds (about $56,700) and a maximum of 15 years in prison.
Ahmed Hammam, a member of parliament’s Culture, Information and Antiquities Committee, told Al-Monitor the government should review international agreements on antiquities that might be strengthened. For example, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property doesn't cover objects illegally moved before that time.
The United States, England, France and Israel are among the countries that openly sell Egyptian antiquities.
Foreign laws "allow all forms of trade in antiquities, and this is a strong obstacle hindering the recovery of many antiquities," Shaaban Abdel Gawad, the head of the central antiquities department at the Ministry of State for Antiquities, told Al-Monitor. Complicating matters, he added, Egyptian law in the past had allowed the sale of antiquities abroad and even granted people who discovered an antiquity partial ownership.
"In 1951, Law No. 215 was issued to limit the trade in antiquities but, as its provisions established the principle of sharing [antiquities] with foreign missions and exchanging duplicate antiquities with museums or individuals, this led to the loss of much of the history of Egypt, as a lot of pieces were put up for sale at foreign auctions," Abdel Gawad noted.
Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass confirmed this when he said last year that because of that law, about 70% of Egyptian antiquities exhibited at European and American museums are considered to have come out of Egypt legally. Much of that law has been amended.
Several auctions this year in Europe and the United States featured Egyptian antiquities. In addition to Christie's, the most famous auction houses that have put up Egyptian antiquities for sale in 2017 are Sotheby's, Baidun, Bonhams and Kallos Gallery.
Authorities claim some houses hide documents related to the stolen antiquities, making them harder to retrieve. Before a 1983 law was passed to protect antiquities, some auction houses were able to get export certificates containing all of the archaeological data for the pieces they sold. The 1970 UNESCO Convention requires Egypt — not those possessing the artifacts and, in some cases, the related data — to prove the country of origin and provide documentation.
Egyptian authorities are pushing to have the law amended.
When Egypt is able to confirm that it owns a piece, it turns to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and Interpol to keep the item from being sold. It also seeks help from authorities in the country where the auction is being held, Abdel Gawad said.
Last year, Hawass highlighted cases in which Egyptian monuments were sold or destroyed, especially from the archaeological sites at mosques in central Cairo's Gamaliya district. "It is the Egyptian government and Egyptian intellectuals who can save the Egyptian monuments by raising archaeological awareness of [their] importance," he said.
This year, the government launched a four-year program to compile a database of all public collections of Egyptian antiquities so the pieces can be tracked as they're transferred from place to place. Abdel Gawad said, "Digitizing antiquities will limit theft operations and prevent the sale of Egyptian antiquities at [international] auctions. It will also allow the recovery of registered artifacts.”