Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Cairo art theft


Stassa Edwards writing on Current Intelligence has an interesting summary of the recent Cairo art theft:

Vincent van Gogh’s 1887 painting Poppy Flowers (Vase with Flowers) was stolen from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in the Giza area of Cairo on Saturday. The roughly one-foot-square work, valued at $50 million, was cut from its frame after robbers borrowed a near-by sofa and used it as a makeshift ladder; not exactly the work of professionals. Shortly after news of the theft broke, Egypt’s culture minister, Farouk Hosni, issued a statement claiming that an Italian couple seen suspiciously“visiting a toilet” and then “rapidly leaving the premises” had been detained in connection with the crime. Alas, it turns out that the tale of international intrigue proved to be untrue, and Hosni retracted the statement a few hours later.

As the narrative of the theft continues to unfold it’s beginning to sound more and more like the plot to The Thomas Crowne Affair (the Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway version, of course). Not long after accusing the Italian tourists, the deputy culture minister, Muhsin Sha’lan, and four of the museum’s security guards were detained on suspicion of neglect and delinquency. Professional delinquency might be an understatement: the museum had an abysmal attendance of only ten people that day, none of the museum’s alarms were working, and only seven of the 43 surveillance cameras were functioning at the time of the robbery.

Unless you are part of an organized tour, getting into Cairo's museums can be a bewildering and frustrating experience, a few months ago I tried twice to visit the museum of Islamic ceramics on Zamalek in the time it was supposed to be open, only to be turned away by guards at the gate because... well, really I never worked out why. Did I look too much like a pot-thief maybe? Or had they had their quota of ten visitors that day? Egypt has had a long and difficult history with protecting the works of art in public collections:
[...] In 2009, Cairo’s Mohamed Ali Pasha Museum, often referred to as Egypt’s Versailles Palace, was robbed of nine paintings depicting the 19th century ruler and his family. In 2000, Pharaonic artifacts were taken from the Egyptian Museum and smuggled into London via Switzerland. Five years earlier, thieves looted the vault of the Temple of Montu at Karnak, walking away with some 55 objects. Even this particular van Gogh painting had been stolen once before, in 1978, though authorities recovered it two years later in an undisclosed location in Kuwait. [...]
let us not forget the Ka-nefer-nefer mummy mask now in St Louis Art Museum, and other objects apparently stolen from the Sakkara storerooms, and those reliefs robbed from TT15 which the Louvre bought with such carefreee abandon recently. But of course that is part of the problem, there is an all too ready market for stolen "art" items, particularly anonymous antiquities - taking the object is only the easy part, the more difficult part is selling the stolen goods for a decent price.

Edwards goes on to note:
Certainly this latest theft will not aid Egypt’s campaign to pressure Western museums to return what it considers pilfered works. Institutions like the British Museum and Berlin’s Neues Museum have rebuffed the Egyptian culture ministry’s request claiming that the well-being of the objects would be compromised if they were returned.
I am sure dealers and no-questions-asked antiquity collectors are watching these events unfold with a grim 'told you so' satisfaction.

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