It doesn’t happen all that often that the battle over ‘mere tomb paintings’ makes headline news – why would they, when they have the highly debated return of the Elgin Marbles to the Acropolis Museum to write about? But the whole world was shocked last week, when Dr. Zahi Hawass accused France’s most famous museum of theft. Or at least, of purchasing looted artefacts and then refusing to return them to Egypt. Dr. Hawass hit back by refusing to let the Louvre’s Saqqara team dig in Egypt.
The Louvre stated that it was forced to wait for permission to return the artefacts. But now the committee has advised that the fragments from Tetiki’s tomb are to be returned – President Sarkozy has even phoned President Mubarak to ensure they’ll be shipped to Egypt in six days’ time. Dr. Hawass says: “When the objects return I will be very happy to renew our archaeological relationship with the Louvre and allow them to excavate again at Saqqara.”
As soon as the fragements arrrive in Egypt, possibilities to reinstate them in their proper position on the walls of TT15 will be looked into. If that’s impossible, they will get a prime position in the planned Grand Egyptian Museum.
Stolen Artefacts Still Abroad
The wall paintings of tomb TT15 in the Louvre are not the only artefacts whose return Egypt demands. They want to see the the mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer repatriated from the Saint Louis Art Museum in the United States, and artefacts from the UK’s Ashmolean Museum and the Royal Museum of Fine Art in Brussels.
Dr. Hawasswarns these organisations will see their excavations suspended as well: “Any museum that buys stolen artifacts will receive this same treatment.I was forced to cut archaeological ties with the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Saint Louis Art Museum because they would not return artifacts, even after the SCA presented evidence they had been stolen.”
He adds that loss of cultural property is not the only risk, but that looters also damage the items that remain as well, by taking the artefacts out of their context. “When robbers enter the tombs and cut pieces out of the walls and take the objects, they are not just damaging the beauty of the tombs, they are damaging history,” adds Dr Hawass. “I hope this story will be a warning to everyone, all museums and archaeologists, Egyptians and foreigners, not to deal in stolen antiquities.”
Why does Dr. Zahi Hawass keep saying ‘stolen’. Isn’t this a case of ‘finders, keepers, sellers’?
Not according to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. When we say artefacts are in a museum ‘illegaly’, the museum authorities likely broke Article 7 of the internationally ratified treaty:
The States Parties to this Convention undertake:
(a) To take the necessary measures, consistent with national legislation, to prevent museums and similar institutions within their territories from acquiring cultural property originating in another State Party which has been illegally exported after entry into force of this Convention, in the States concerned. Whenever possible, to inform a State of origin Party to this Convention of an offer of such cultural property illegally removed from that State after the entry into force of this Convention in both States;
(b) (i) to prohibit the import of cultural property stolen from a museum or a religious or secular public monument or similar institution in another State Party to this Convention after the entry into force of this Convention for the States concerned, provided that such property is documented as appertaining to the inventory of that institution;
(ii) at the request of the State Party of origin, to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention in both States concerned, provided, however, that the requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has valid title to that property. Requests for recovery and return shall be made through diplomatic offices. The requesting Party shall furnish, at its expense, the documentation and other evidence necessary to establish its claim for recovery and return. The Parties shall impose no customs duties or other charges upon cultural property returned pursuant to this Article. All expenses incident to the return and delivery of the cultural property shall be borne by the requesting Party.
Article 7, Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970