Monday, 6 June 2011

"Egypt Repatriates Stolen Artefact from Britain"

The temple of Isis at Behbeit el-Hagar lies in a village (31 01 40N 31 17 15 E) just to the north of the site of Sebennytos ( the home town of the Ptolemaic historian Manetho and which was the seat of Nectanebo II, Egypt's last native ruler). It is relatively rarely visited today, despite being on the supposed route of the Holy Family's journey to Egypt soon after the Nativity which is followed by some tourists. Bits of its reliefs taken from the ruins are scattered all over the place (including in the garden of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo). The English-language version of the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm attempts a redefinition of the semantics of the transitive verb "repatriate" (MENA, 'Egypt repatriates stolen artifact from Britain', 6th June 2011):
Egypt on Monday announced the repatriation of a stolen artifact that was about to be sold at auction in London. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said its Cultural Relations Department received the artifact from the Egyptian Embassy in London. The artifact was illegally smuggled out of Egypt after it was stolen from the Behbeit el-Hagar Temple, located [near] the city of Saman[n]oud northeast of Cairo. The Ministry of Antiquities had requested Egypt’s embassy in London to intervene to stop the sale. The ancient stone piece comprises an incomplete human body, where only part of the shoulders are seen, with the head of a cow.
This is where it was knocked-off from:

and this is what the block looked like before collectable-hunters profiting from the no-questions-asked market got their hands on it. Here we see the context of the smashed-off geegaw.

(Photos from the Luxor Times). The theft was discovered the next day:
On Friday 5th January 1990, a guard working at the temple site reported that thugs attacked the site and stole some artefacts and next day the inventory showed missing pieces which were reported and the retrieved artefact is one of them.
According to the Al-Ahram online article (Nevine El-Aref, 'Granite depiction of cow-shaped deity returns to Egypt', 7 Jun 2011) the London auction house concerned was Bonhams, and the depiction is of "the ancient Egyptian goddess Akht".

The ruins at Behbeit el-Hagar are described (with pictures) by Thierry Benderitter on the OsirisNet website as "an ignored site of the delta, which could be restored, but which doesn't seem to receive the attention which it deserves". The ruins are contained in a modern walled enclosure some 120 x 170 m across, just on the southeastern edge of the village, despite this,
The site is currently very ruined, and continuously ravaged by the villagers in the vicinity, who have all cut all antiquity found there, from the blocks of granite, but associated with it also are more recent acts of vandalism with reliefs cut destined to be resold. [...] It is certain fact that the temple of Behbeit El-Hagar represents a unique site, including the blocks whose reliefs are of an exceptional quality. It therefore appears urgent to preserve and to restore this structure before the deteriorations linked to the actions the wind erosion, pollution and depredation cause the disappearance of one of the most beautiful monuments of the Delta. It is urgent that the Service of Antiquities of Egypt and the Egyptological community mobilise themselves for this safeguard.
See also
Favard-Meeks, C., 'The present state of the site of Behbeit el-Hagar', BMSAES 3 (2002), 31-41 [Download PDF: The present state of the site of Behbeit el-Hagar].

A fragment in the Metropolitan Museum of Art has "Rogers Fund, 1912" given as the reason why it is in New York. Examples are in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts ( Martha A. Willcomb Fund and EES), Brooklyn Museum.

For a fragment of the temple recently sold by the Bakarat Gallery in Beverley Hills California see here (note: absolutely no collecting history or documentation of licit provenance and export cited. Where did this come from, and when and how did it leave Egypt? )

In 2004 a piece of relief stolen from this temple was seen being sold by Christie's in New York (Robin Pogrebin, 'Stolen Artwork From Temple Will Be Returned to Egypt' New York Times, August 20, 2004)
The granite relief, valued at $5,000, was taken from the Temple of Behbeit el-Hagar in Gharbia in 1990, the government said. It was featured on Christie's Web site as Lot No. 294, to be auctioned in an antiquities sale on June 12, 2002. The suggested bid for the relief, along with several other objects, was $7,000 to $9,000, according to an affidavit in support of a seizure warrant filed by the government in Federal District Court in Manhattan last October. Before the sale, the Egyptian government notified Christie's and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, that the artifact had been looted sometime in 1990 from the temple site. Christie's withdrew the relief from the sale and has since voluntarily held it while the government investigated its provenance and made arrangements to seize it and send it back to Egypt. Mahmoud Allam, Egypt's consul general in New York, [...] Mr. Allam said that he would take the artifact back today, and it would be reinserted in the temple wall. Although the temple had been in ruins, it has since been restored.
Surely it should not be "the [US] government" who "investigated its provenance" after the sale was called off, but a reputable dealer before the sale was even considered.

The problem is that the temple has not been "restored" as it is a heap of collapsed granite blocks thrown down probably some two millennia or more ago, so it would be interesting to learn what actually happened to the New York piece, did it end up in one of the antiquity storerooms in the Delta region? Is it still there?

Photo EES.

Dealers and collectors like to pretend that the problem with looting is the "inadequate stewardship" of the source nations, which are incompetent in looking after the archaeological heritage. This site is one of many thousand in Egypt alone where sculpted blocks and other potentially collectable items lie scattered over comparatively large areas. In the case of Egypt, many of them lie in unpopulated deserts or mountains. Yet collectors blame the "source countries" for not placing armed guards on every single such site in the country. But Egypt is not the only "source country" for collectable antiquities which has many thousands of extensive archaeological sites scattered in remote locations which collectors and dealers say "need guarding" to prevent illicitly-obtained antiquities from circulating on the international antiquities market. It seems to me that there is a far more practical and economic solution to this problem; that collectors and dealers ensure by proper provenance research that illicitly-obtained artefacts do not circulate on the market.

If antiquity collectors and dealers (a minority group however you want to count them) want a licit market for antiquities then they should not be demanding that others create it for them, it is up to them - and nobody else - to create conditions in which one could exist. So far we have only seen that they are singularly unwilling to make a serious effort in this direction - part of the milieu making various excuses why this is "impossible".

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