Wednesday 17 March 2010

How and when did the Imesy coffin leave Egypt?

How and when did the Imesy coffin leave Egypt? The handing over to Egypt of the 21st dynasty coffin of Imesy this month has aroused a lot of interest in the problem of looting and smuggling, but also some comment among collectors. Two days ago, Peter Tompa alarmistically observed no one associated with the archaeological community has questioned whether “ the repatriation will undercut any faith collectors might have in the "1970 Rule" as a some sort of safe harbor”. This is not really surprising given the actual circumstances of the case (see below). Anyway, as far as I am aware, few collectors – especially of ancient coins the group which Tompa represents - actually give much thought to whether the items they hoard at home were dug up before or after 1970. But Tompa seems convinced that we should accept that the coffin can be documented as having left Egypt before 1970. Is that so?

An article in Al-Ahram Weekly, (Nevine El-Aref, "Unknown, unregistered, but thanks", Al Ahram 25 February - 3 March 2010) sets out the case quite clearly. According to this report, the moves to return the coffin to Egypt began in October 2008 when US customs officials at Miami International Airport detained a shipment from Spain containing the coffin, which was found to have no provenance or papers. This raised the concern of the American authorities, who suspected that the coffin might have left Egypt illegally.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) opened investigations and found that the first public showing of this coffin was in 2007, when it was exhibited in Madrid. If the item had been legally exported, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities would have a record of this in its official registers. No such record exists. More to the point, though this is claimed to be one of the most beautiful in the series of 21st dynasty coffins of this type, none of the experts specialising in coffins belonging to the 21st Dynasty had ever seen this coffin before. This makes it very unlikely that the coffin had been excavated a long time ago and had been circulating in the art world for more than a century as Tompa claims. Instead, given that the series has been well-studied by Egyptologists (including those who have actively searched out items held in private collections), it is a strong pointer that the object had been illegally excavated and smuggled abroad in recent years.

David Gill on his Looting Matters blog has an additional detail not noted by Al-Ahram:
Reports in the Spanish press map its route from its acquisition, apparently in Egypt, by a Spanish private collector by name of Miguel Angel Buendía during the 1970s ("Egipto recuperará en marzo un sarcófago faraónico, incautado en Estados Unidos", El País February 22, 2010). [I am grateful to a reader of LM for this report.]
According to Al-Ahram the American authorities were initially concerned about the import of this item into the US:
because the shipment was made by Felix Cervera Correa, the owner of a private gallery, Arqueologia Clasi[c]a S.L., who had also had a family link to Fu[n]dacio Arrqueologica Clos, a private organisation that owns the Museu Egipci de Barcelona. The SCA was recently involved in negotiations with the Barcelona museum over stolen artefacts.
David Gill has some information on Felix Cervera's membership of the IADAA. The Al-Ahram article further reports that:
Additional research undertaken by the SCA has discovered connections between the family of the importer and antiquities smuggling. It was ascertained that a gallery owner, Bea Felix Cervera, was arrested by the authorities more than a year ago after a police raid uncovered several Roman antiquities hidden in his gallery. Bea Felix Cervera is apparently the father of the importer [of the Imhesy coffin], Felix Cervera Correa. The exhibition in which the Imesy coffin was displayed was at the Alexandra Irigoyen Gallery in Madrid, and was labelled "Galeria F. Cervera presents La Mirada de Egipto". One of the other pieces displayed in this exhibition is a block from the site of Kom Al-Khamsin in the south of Saqqara. Egyptologist Joseph Cervello has demonstrated that this block came from the tomb of Imep- Hor and was most probably looted from the site during a robbery in 1999. This again connects Cervera with antiquities smuggling.
(Imep-Hor is entioned here in another context! Also here).

Lawyer Tompa regrets that the Imesy coffin case did not come to court, "It's understandable, but nonetheless too bad the owner of the sarcophagus merely abandoned it rather than spend the money on lawyers to fight the forfeiture in Court". I hardly think that money was the main problem for this buyer. This item was not bought cheaply and surely lawyers fees in the event of any problems would be calculated in the costs of such a high-end purchase. Perhaps the buyer realised that he had inadvertently (?) obtained some hot property and really was not after all eager to accept such an item into his collection, nor to publicise that fact. Tompa, mindful of his own Baltimore Illegal Coin Import Stunt case coming up, comments: "It would have been interesting to see if the basis for the seizure would have stood up to judicial review". And what if it had not? Would Mr Tompa have advised a client that he could accept something like this into their collection, even though it was shown to be 'dodgy', but the US authorities "cannot touch you for it"? The Al-Ahra report supplies some more details about this:
Upon the request of Hawass, the DHS seized the coffin in February 2009. All the interested parties had 30 days from the date of the seizure notice to respond; the American buyer of the coffin had already abandoned his interest, leaving only the SCA and Cervera as potential claimants. The SCA petitioned the DHS to return the coffin to Egypt without bringing the matter before a court, but Cervera contested this. Counsel for the SCA then filed a claim before the court in November 2009. Hawass provided all the required official documents and assigned a lawyer in Miami who agreed to file the lawsuit free of charge. According to Hawass, when Cervera saw that the SCA was exerting such effort to procure the restitution of the coffin, and when Cervera failed to file a counter claim before the deadline, he withdrew from the case and the SCA allowed the coffin to be forfeited to the US authorities.
It would be interesting to know the identity of the American buyer willing to obtain a showy piece like this which had only just surfaced on the market. It would also be interesting to learn the identity of the Florida lawyer who offered his services free of charge, it is heartening to be reminded that not all US lawyers and judges are on the side of those involved in the no-questions-asked antiquities trade.

1 comment:

Scrabcake said...

Yes, it would be good to know the identity of this person. I have absolutely no sympathy here. I think more collectors need to care about provenance on "small objects". Dealers seem to view the influx of a few who care as an inconvenience and lament the death of the "discreet deal between gentlemen"* nature of the profession.
It seems like the privacy of the previous owner is valued more than the legality of the object, which is a shame. I've definitely gotten some snarky replies inquiring about provenance on Ebay..."if you don't like that it came from a 'german collection', don't bid." And they can afford to do this because I'll not bid, but a jillion other people who don't care will.
I'm still not sure where I come down on the issue of repatriation of objects and cultural patrimony.
However, there is no ethical issue here. This fellow bought stolen goods and did no due diligence, and the galleries that sold it to him are no better than black-market dealers and back-alley fences for stolen goods.
This is an attitude amongst collectors that MUST CHANGE, and perhaps if an example was made of a collector or dealer, it would help.
*translated as unaccountability.

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