Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Selling precious artefacts could top up Egypt’s coffers

"Egypt is overflowing with antiquities. So much so that they are stuffed away to moulder in warehouses, sometimes forgotten and allowed to deteriorate, never to be seen again by the public or by researchers" writes Patrick Werr ("Selling precious artefacts could top up Egypt’s coffers" The National Business March 29, 2017) .
Why not package up some of these artefacts and organise their sale to foreigners or Egyptians, complete with documents telling the buyer where the item was found and why it is significant? The government could add tens of millions of dollars to its coffers each year. It’s not like Egypt isn’t selling antiquities now. The problem is that the sellers are not the government, but rather organised looters who have been plundering the country’s archaeological sites. In the process they have been destroying important historical information that proper archaeology would glean from the objects’ physical contexts. The pillaging has been going on full force since the 2011 uprising, with digging and looting in sites from Alexandria to Aswan. [....] Egypt has been getting little benefit from many of the artefacts. When an archaeological site is excavated, typically the archaeologists are required to place all the objects they find in warehouses. The public is not allowed to visit and view them, and they usually are not accessible for study. Even the archaeologists working on the project often can’t get back to study them once they have delivered them to the magazine. By now, the number of such pieces hidden away in countless magazines probably runs into the hundreds of thousands. The objects are often moved with corresponding loss of information and occasionally stolen.
There are so many of these objects that most no longer have use in research, museums or academia. Until the 1970s the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had a sale room for surplus antiquities, and until the ‘80s foreign archaeologists excavating a site were given a proportion of the finds (partage).
One important effect of again legalising the export of artefacts would be to direct at least a part of the current illicit trade into official channels. Instead of smugglers reaping the gains, the revenue would go to the state treasury. This is particularly urgent. Since the collapse of tourism after the 2011 uprising and subsequent political turmoil, ticket sales have plummeted and antiquities have been starved of funds. Egypt needs more revenue to operate its museums, restore more important artefacts and preserve and protect its main archaeological sites. The objects could be given official registration with papers, which would make them more valuable on the international market since their provenance would be documented, making them legally tradable. They could be digitally scanned before the sale, and conditions could be put that the buyer will make the object available to researchers if necessary.

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