Thursday 22 December 2011

Egypt: Antiquity Smuggling

Al Ahram has a summary piece on the development of 'Illegal smuggling of antiquities' in relation to the upcoming launch later on next year of the Red List which has antiquity collectors of a certain group somewhat agitated. The article presents a brief summary of the development of the international trade in illegally obtained artefacts over the past half century:
The appetite for Egyptian antiquities is undiminished, and so long as there is a demand, illegal excavations and the smuggling of antiquities will continue. Unscrupulous connoisseurs are always on the lookout for interesting artefacts to add to their private collections or to donate to the nation, and interested parties are prepared to pay large sums in order to acquire the objects of their desire.
The article cites the massive scale of looting and the smuggling of antiquities abroad in the 1960s and more revelations in 1972 and the problems of the 1970s and 1980s dealing with the continuing pillage and consequent increasing trade in antiquities. Many of these items coming illegally onto the market then are still in circulation among collectors. Even in the 1990s, under the reformed antiquities organisation under its new name, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the trade persisted. This was despite the "strong ties with Interpol and customs agencies all over the world which, together with the new Department for the Recovery of Stolen Artefacts, watched for signs of lost treasures". Still archaeological objects appeared for sale at auction houses.

In 2000, no fewer than 619 pharaonic artefacts were stolen from the Egyptian Museum and smuggled to London via Switzerland. Following the arrest of the thieves by the British authorities, some were retrieved and returned to Egypt. In 2002 a set of granite reliefs from the Temple of Isis at Beihbet Al-Hegara in the Delta turned up on the auction block at Christie's in New York. The sale was stopped, the objects withdrawn, and they were returned to Egypt. In 2004, another piece from the same temple -- a fragment of granite relief featuring the face of a deity facing left -- turned up. It was confiscated by the United States authorities, who took steps to ensure its safe return it to Egypt. Then 15 objects stolen from the officially closed but ill-protected Maadi Museum came up for auction in United Kingdom -- also successfully returned to Egypt. A seven-member gang trading in illegal antiquities, operating in Establ Antar west of Assiut, was traced by antiquities police traced and arrested.

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