Sunday, 5 May 2013

Ahram, English Dealer Arrested over Christie's Antiquities?

Ahram Online is reporting today "Britain's largest seiz[ur]e of stolen artefacts since Egypt's revolution", and the arrest by the british police of a "UK-based businessman on suspicion of looting Egyptian antiquities". This is apparently connected with the six objects which were withdrawn from sale but had been due to be sold at a Christie's auction on 2 May in London, but were withdrawn apparently at the last minute:
Scotland Yard Art and Antiquities Squad (AAS) made the arrest on Friday, 3 May when international arts auction house, Christie's, reported that it had identified some antiquities which are almost certainly stolen from Egypt recently. This is one of the biggest operations of its kind since the Egyptian revolution exploded in 2011, well-informed sources confirm to Ahram Online. Christie's experts, the British museum's Egyptology department, the Egyptian embassy in London and the Art Loss Register worked closely for weeks to identify six stolen objects. The AAS is now trying to determine how these objects left Egypt, how the seller came to possess them and who his accomplices are. Ahram Online understands that the seller (now in custody) claims he had inherited the Egyptian objects from his uncle. He told the international auctioneer that his uncle served in Egypt during WWII and stayed on for a few years before returning to the UK in the '50s.
The trouble is, not only is the British press silent about this alleged arrest, but also Al Ahram itself in the original article about the Christie's sale withdrawal gave a variant story of hos the six items in the Christie's sale were spotted and by whom. In this new version, it is Christie's which spotted the items were stolen, without help from the Egyptian authorities. In the story which it published on Friday they wrote:
Coincidence always play a role in new discoveries; today it plays a role in withdrawing six ancient Egyptian objects from Christie’s auction list in London. The story began three days ago when Director General of the Repatriation of Antiquities Department Osama El-Nahas discovered that the famous Christie’s auction house in London was to auction six ancient Egyptian items that were stolen and smuggled out of Egypt.
What is even more notable is that Friday's story has been deleted from the Al Ahram website and there does not seem to be a complete archived copy available anywhere in the internet.To return top the latest article:
One of the stolen objects is a recent find from [the Temple of] Amenhotep III in Western Thebes. Made of Egyptian red granite, the relief fragment depicts a Nubian prisoner, facing right, with short hair and wearing heavy hooped earrings and a collar necklace (1550 - 1069 BC). Another is an Egyptian painted limestone relief fragment depicting a male figure with his head facing left. Experts say it is very likely to have originated from a recently-rediscovered and excavated tomb, again in Thebes.
But then did not the original article say that "Egypt's Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) does not have documentation proving Egypt’s ownership" of these objects to hand? In which case on what grounds would on that same day would a man be actually "arrested" on charges of "looting" [of objects in Egypt] (that's what newspaper says), and what lies behind the Egyptians' claim that the seller "did not have any documents that prove his ownership" of the objects in England.

Since January 2011 we have seen a number of "feelgood" antiquities articles emerge from Egypt (and Al Ahram in particular) in which some little success against antiquity traffickers is announced. Each of the stories has some puzzling feature or flaw which needs resolution, but each is followed only by silence (embarrassed or insolent?) with the original account left hanging in the air. After following them for several months it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Egyptian press is simply making them up to give its readers the warm-fuzzies, and that antiquities trafficking is one of those themes where 'points can be scored' by appealing to emotions rather than reason, but the topic itself is in reality of so little real meaning to real lives, that stories like this can be treated with impunity. In the absence of any confirmation at the moment, I am going to treat this as another one of these semi-fictional warm-and-fuzzy stories, showing the newspaper's readers that the Egyptians still "count for something" on the international arena. I'll amend my opinion if and when the details of the alleged arrest are confirmed by an independent source. Note the new article is unsigned.

Ahram Online, 'Exclusive: Britain's largest seize of stolen artefacts since Egypt's revolution', Ahram Online, Sunday 5 May 2013.

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