Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 October 2005
Issue No. 764
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Arrests in 'museum curse' case

The three Ancient Egyptian limestone statuettes which disappeared three weeks ago from the basement of the Egyptian Museum have been recovered in an undercover operation, reports Nevine El-Aref

It seemed that the Egyptian Museum's basement had been afflicted with the Pharaohs' curse. Three weeks ago, when the Giza archaeological inspectors asked for the return of 14 objects placed on loan with the museum last April to celebrate World Heritage Day, curators realised that three of the pieces had vanished. In an attempt to find the missing objects up to 40 inspectors have been exploring the museum's basement, sorting through the overwhelmingly large collection of stored artefacts, but with no luck. That was until early this week, when the Tourism and Antiquities Police (TAP) arrested two men who were trying to sell the objects to a policeman working undercover as an antiquities trader. Culture Minister Farouk Hosni has called for an investigation into the theft.

The three statuettes date back to the Old Kingdom era. They are a headless, seated limestone figure of the commander of the royal guard; a seated pair statuette of the director of artisans, Neferref-Nessu, and his wife, who wears a colourful collar; and a burnt clay Osirian statuette.

Major-General Abdel-Hafiz Abdel-Karim, director of TAP, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the two men belonged to a team of workmen engaged in the restoration of the basement. The duo concealed the statuettes in cement bags and removed them from the museum with rubble they were clearing during restoration.

The men were able to escape with the objects as they were not subject to routine security checks. They hid them in a house overlooking a canal in Ayatt, Giza, and tried to sell them by showing photographs to antiquities traders. Abdel-Karim said that TAP were tipped off and sent an undercover agent who offered LE500,000 for the statuettes. The pair were arrested as they handed them over.

They are expected to be sentenced from 10 to 15 years hard labour. The statuettes have been confiscated until a verdict is handed down.

These are not the first objects to disappear from the museum basement. Last year a sandstone relief of the Nile god Hapi was misplaced, but was found after a thorough search which lasted two weeks. Also last year, 38 gold bracelets from the Roman period vanished. The gold bracelets, found in 1905 in the area of Kom Abu Bello in the Delta governorate of Beheira, are snaked-shaped and decorated with precious stones.

Last week there were press reports that a limestone statuette of the Fourth-Dynasty ruler Khafre had been dropped and broken in two pieces while being moved from display. Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), denied the incident and issued a press release. "The statue in question does not belong to King Khafre, but is an unidentified royal statuette discovered by myself in 1988 to the west of Khafre's pyramid. It has been safely stored in the museum basement since its discovery," it said.

What really happened, Hawass said in the press release, was that the shoulders of the bronze statue of King Merenre came off his body in the hands of a curator. The statue was immediately restored in the museum laboratory. The statue was discovered in very poor condition in 1897 in the torso of a larger one belonging to the king's father, Pepi I of the Sixth Dynasty. As it was made of beaten copper sheets assembled with nails, the statue had been subjected to much restoration, the last in 1996 by a German team.

However there is no disputing the need to find a solution to the problems besetting the Egyptian Museum. At a press conference held at the museum last Saturday, Hawass announced that the disappearance of the three statuettes was due largely to a security loophole. From now on all museum staff will be searched on leaving, following the practice in other international museums. He also promised to make an ID profile for each object in the museum so that transfer from one hall to another could be followed.

Hawass praised the work underway to upgrade the storage facilities in the basement. He said that within a month a training course for curators would be held under the supervision of UNESCO in an attempt to upgrade their skills and raise their awareness of new methodology.

Wafaa El-Sediq, director of the Egyptian Museum, described the task of clearing the maze of corridors in the basement as a "mission impossible".

"We not only have to deal with sand and dust, but also with insects consuming the organic remains," she said. The team exploring the basement have uncovered painted sarcophagi, huge statues of Pharaohs and deities, mummies and other remains.

Hawass described the incident with the Merenre statue as a "normal issue" that happens every day in any museum around the world. "It is part of the museum's routine work," he said.

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