Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 January 2009
Issue No. 931
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Artefacts on show in nightclub

An Egyptian antiquities collection at the ůstergötlands Country Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, will soon be back in its homeland, Nevine El-Aref reports

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Clockwise from top left: a view of the museum's nightclub; one of the showcases; a limestone head of goddess Hathor; El-Achmawi with a granite statue; a naos with god Osiris and a stele

After being on display for almost five decades at the ůstergötlands Country Museum in Stockholm, a collection of 212 artefacts ranging from the early pre-dynastic era right through to the Coptic era will be coming home soon.

The story of the collection goes back to the late 1920s when Otto Smith, an antiquities lover, excavated several archaeological areas in Saqqara and Luxor during his several visits to Egypt. The 212 objects he is known to have unearthed included wood and ivory arrows, painted and plain clay vessels, pots, fabrics, chandeliers, mirrors with a design of the goddess Hathor, wooden combs and limestone reliefs with ancient Egyptian engravings as well as marble, limestone and granite statues depicting Pharaonic deities and nobles. There are also a number of marble vases, rings made of animal bone, beads and coloured scarabs.

Smith kept his priceless collection at his house in Stockholm all through his life until he died in 1934. In 1956 his grandson, who was not able to take care of it, sent the collection to the neighbouring ůstergötlands Museum for restoration. In 1959, Smith's family offered the 212 pieces to the museum according to a contract preserving the family's ownership of the objects as well as the right to recover it at anytime if it was subjected to deterioration or negligence, placed in storage or removed from its current display at one of the museum's galleries to any other place in the museum.

Regrettably, over the last 10 years successive visits to the museum revealed that the administration had violated the articles of the 1959 contract as 163 items of the collection had been removed from their original display at one of the galleries to its restaurant, which is located at the basement, while the others had been stored.

The Smith family therefore saw that the most perfect way to rescue the collection was to retrieve it from the museum and offer it to Egypt. Thomas Adlercreutz, the family's representative and lawyer, contacted the Egyptian Embassy in Sweden, which in turn contacted the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to set about resolving the case legally and diplomatically.

The SCA sent their legal consultant Achraf El-Achmawi and Egyptologist Amr El-Tibi to investigate the case. El-Achmawi told Al-Ahram Weekly that inspecting the restaurant where the objects were exhibited revealed several negative aspects that were helping to exacerbate their deterioration. The objects, he said, were very badly displayed and in a very poor condition of preservation. Some are stuffed into two vertical showcases located in a corner among the tables and chairs of the restaurant, while the others were exhibited freely on wooden bases where they were exposed to humidity, water vapour and smoke emanating from the restaurant's open kitchen. Cigarette smoke, heat exhaled from guests' breath and direct lighting also played a destructive role on the objects.

One of the worst aspects, El-Achmawi pointed out, was that every night the restaurant was used as a nightclub where people danced and sang, whereby the objects were in immediate danger of accidental damage.

El-Tibi told the Weekly that the 212 pieces were considered among the finest known, displaying as they did significant phases of Egyptian history and culture and the different styles of art used by ancient artisans from prehistory to the Coptic era.

"Among the rare objects in the collection are contemporary animal figures, a granite naos with a statuette of the god Osiris, a stele from the Amarna era, a distinguished decorative vase and a Greek statue of a priest named Nesmin," El-Tibi said.

Following several negotiations between Adlercreutz and El-Achmawi, an initial agreement towards recovering the collection was achieved. Adlercreutz made a written avowal to the effect that the Smith family did not possess any documentation confirming their ownership of the collection, nor did they have written approval from the Egyptian government allowing Smith the 1920s archaeological digs. The avowal also affirmed that the objects were not offered to the Smiths, nor exchanged for other artefacts, nor were a result of the division of antiquities between two excavation missions as it was applied during the 1920s according to the old antiquities law.

"Such an avowal was registered at the Swedish real-estate administration, as well as a list showing the number and archaeological significance of the collection," El-Achmawi said. Now, following all these procedures, Egypt has asked the Swedish government for the return of the collection which is expected to return to its homeland soon.

"It was really a challenge," El-Achmawi told the Weekly with some enthusiasm. He explained that the collection was regarded as the museum's only collection of Egyptian antiquities. When Egypt recovered them, he said, the ůstergötlands Museum would not have any Egyptian pieces among its exhibits. "Such an endeavour is a concrete step towards returning Egypt's smuggled heritage and a tag that the SCA will use as leverage in similar cases in the future, specially in recovering smuggled objects exhibited in international museums," El-Achmawi said.

This week in Bulgaria Interpol apprehended Lebanese antiquities trader Ali Aboutaam, who was accused of smuggling antiquities out of Egypt. Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, said Aboutaam was convicted in the famous antiquities smuggling case of Tarek El-Seweisi, who was caught by the Egyptian police in 2003 and convicted of stealing and smuggling Egyptian antiquities.

El-Seweisi collaborated with Aboutaam to smuggle 280 artefacts out of the country by packing some of them as glass bottles and hiding others in large boxes of children's toys and electronics, all labelled with the name of a well-known international exporting company.

Hawass added that investigations carried out by General Prosecution in Egypt revealed that Aboutaam helped El-Seweisi to smuggle the artefacts out of the country. He was the eighth criminal to be convicted in the case, but was still at large until last week when Interpol caught him in Bulgaria. In April 2004, the Criminal Court in Egypt sentenced him in absentia to 15 years imprisonment and a fine of LE50,000.

In collaboration with the General Prosecution, the SCA was able to retrieve 1,000 objects from Switzerland and Britain that had been smuggled out of the country.

Three years ago the FBI told Hawass, who was then receiving one of three reliefs from Akhmim which were stolen by another convicted smuggler, about Aboutaam's illegal activities. "Catching Aboutaam is a concrete step towards stopping the trade in illegal antiquities around the world," Hawass told the Weekly. He added that since 2002 Egypt had succeeded in recovering 5,000 stolen and smuggled antiquities.

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