Sunday 26 February 2012

Egypt: Busted for Tourist Souvenirs?

It was reported on Sunday that:
Egyptian security officials say they have thwarted an attempt by a British man and his wife to smuggle 19 artifacts out of the country. Police say the couple were stopped in Luxor International Airport on Sunday with pieces in their luggage ranging from Pharaonic statues and pottery to a Greco-Roman bronze coin.
The Associated Press: Egypt says Brit tried to smuggle artifacts
Washington Post: Egyptian police foil attempt by British national to smuggle artifacts out of ...

The Luxor Times Blog has more details from the officials’ statements about the incident ('Failed attempt to smuggle 19 antiquities objects at Luxor Airport'). It is stated that:
the captured pieces vary between ushabtis, faience, ushabtisi , ostraca, manuscripts including an English version of a Bible dated back to 16th century and various coins" [...] The objects include a pottery pot on 9cm with a human face depicted, 5 pottery and green faience ushabti with hieroglyphic inscriptions and depiction of Isis which are dated to late pharaonic times. The objects [...] fall under the antiquities law No. 117 for 1983 and the Bible is subject of culture property which is protected by law 114/1983. [...] Mr. Hassan Rasmi (Head of the central administration of ports) said that during the Committee examination of the seized artifacts, the wife did throw and broke 3 lanterns trying to destroy the objects and the police force managed to control her.
The additional information appears:
Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim (Minister State of Antiquities) said that the objects were in acquisition of a British couple (Michael R. and Angela N.) who was trying to leave the country and that the objects will be transferred to the Egyptian Museum storerooms in the next few days under the supervision of a specialized committee.
This raises the question of whether Minister Ibrahim has seen these "green faience ushabtis with hieroglyphic inscriptions and depiction of Isis".

I wonder whether he'd like to see mine too, bought in the shop round the corner from the Luxor souk (cheaper there) - I think most people who have ever seen a shabti knows these are fantasy pieces of the most amazingly obvious and comical nature. Let me guess, the "lanterns" are pottery lamps with the face of Hathor on them? I never managed to get one of these as all the ones on offer in the souk (and in the Cairo Museum shop) were so poorly made that I'd not give them house room. These too, by the way are all fantasy pieces.

UPDATE 27.02.12:
Luxor Time Blog: "We demand an official apology". A few hours later than the original post, the Luxor Times Blog now presents another side to the story.
Luxor Times editor had the opportunity to meet in person with the so-called “smugglers” who were RELEASED immediately by the pre-judge at Luxor court and a committee will be formed for further investigation on the objects from Cairo and question what the antiquity specialist at the airport said it was a Roman coin, it was in fact a Romanian coin according to the couple. The full story and details will be published soon in the printed version of Luxor Times but from now until then, we hope that the British respectful couple get an official apology from whoever is responsible for this drama as long as the objects are not genuine. Otherwise don’t expect any tourists to buy a souvenir from the local market for 5 pounds as it may fool someone who should have studied for many years to be a professional and think it is genuine.
Kate Phizackerley also has a post on this today: 'Couple Released at Luxor Airport', "to the embarrassment of all concerned a couple arrested at Luxor airport have been released after it was realised that the items in their baggage were not antiquities but tourist trinkets. [...] One would think that with all the out of work archaeologists in Egypt one would be employed at Luxor airport so that these mix ups didn't happen".

Nevine El-Aref however ('Cairo Airport authorities foil smuggling attempt', Monday 27 Feb 2012) reports that the arrest took place in Cairo, with the added details that the lamps "were decorated with winged amulets and the goddess Isis", the term ostraca is explained as "inscribed stone reliefs" (summat else surely?). She also says "coinS" were involved and "Coptic manuscripts". The smashing of these items by the owner once the customs had opened the cases is difficult to explain if they were tourist copies. These "winged amulets" were not winged phalli by any chance were they?

Well, we look forward indeed to the full story of what these objects turn out to be. One wonders why the British couple were travelling with a Romanian coin in their luggage?* Buying the 16th century Bible and Coptic manuscripts (if old) there though was a bad idea.

How many times is that this last year that an "antiquities retrieval" story from Egypt turns out to have concerned fakes (or probably would if the Egyptians would have produced follow-up stories admitting it)?

* There is an explanation actually, little kids make some money by asking tourists for small "coins", and in return for a flashing smile of gratitude get low-value small change in various currencies, which they then hawk around to other tourists asking them to "change the money". Obviously an Egyptian kid cannot buy bread in the local shop for Romanian coins, and some kind hearted tourist may give them an Egyptian pound or two for the worthless modern coins if the kids look appealing (or desperate) enough. No harm done.

Photo: A small part of the Barford Family Collection of ridiculous and not so ridiculous tourist fakes. The second from the right (bought in Luxor in 2010) is the Isis-fantasy type. The fabric 'behind' is part of the new line of excavation fashion wear I am thinking of marketing, these are exclusively fatigued Luxor 'tomb-crawler' jeans.

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