Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 October 2009
Issue No. 968
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fragments come back home

The controversy over five 3,200-year-old ancient Egyptian tomb fragments removed from Egypt and put on display in the Louvre in Paris has finally come to a close, reports Nevine El-Aref

Click to view caption
Parts of a painted scene discovered in 1980 at the tomb of a nobleman in Draa Abul-Nagaa necropolis on Luxor's west bank

Following two weeks of sometimes difficult negotiations with the Louvre Museum in Paris over the fate of five ancient Egyptian tomb fragments dating back over 3,000 years, France agreed this week to hand the five painted fragments back to Egypt.

According to Egypt's Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, President Hosni Mubarak received a telephone call from French President Nicolas Sarkozy in which Sarkozy confirmed that the five fragments, stolen from a tomb in Luxor, would be returned to Egypt. Hosni added that the conversation had emphasised the deep cultural relations between Egypt and France and the friendship between the two presidents.

Hosni said that preparations were now underway between the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the Louvre and Egypt's embassy in France in order to ensure the safe return of the fragments next week.

The controversy over the five fragments goes back to 2008 when, during a visit by German scholars to the Louvre Museum, they were surprised to find the five 3,200- year-old fragments -- parts of a painted scene -- they had discovered in 1980 at the tomb of a nobleman in Draa Abul- Nagaa necropolis on Luxor's west bank.

The Germans wondered how the fragments could have made their way to the Louvre.

This tomb and its paintings were scientifically documented at the time, leaving the question of how the fragments ended up in the possession of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Investigation showed that the fragments had been removed from the tomb and subsequently acquired by the Louvre between 2000 and 2002.

As soon as the presence of the fragments at the Louvre was confirmed, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, contacted the museum asking for their return to Egypt.

According to the UNESCO 1972 Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, artefacts are the property of their country of origin, and pieces smuggled out of a country must be returned to their homeland.

However, despite France having signed this convention, authorities at the Louvre did not at first agree that the fragments should be returned to Egypt, referring the matter to the French Ministry of Culture.

As a result, the SCA took action against the Louvre, halting its excavations at Saqqara outside Cairo and Deir Al-Medina on Luxor's west bank.

Claims that Egypt had decided to take action against the Louvre as a result of the failure of Farouk Hosni to be elected director-general of UNESCO, which is based in Paris, were dismissed by Hawass as "completely unfounded" and "contrary to the truth".

The SCA had decided to take action against the Louvre in January this year, Hawass said many months before the UNESCO election. In taking such action, the SCA was "implementing the UNESCO convention and Egyptian law," Hawass said.

Moreover, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly Hawass said that, "this is not the first time that the SCA has cut ties with a foreign museum," saying that this had happened before with the Saint Louis Museum in the United States, which had refused to return a mummy mask of Ka-Nefer, as well as with the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in England and the Royal Museum of Fine Art in Brussels. All these museums have ancient Egyptian objects in their collections that are suspected of having been smuggled out of the country.

Similar actions have also been taken against foreign archaeological expeditions suspected of involvement in illegal antiquities dealing, Hawass said.

Following the SCA's decision to take action against the Louvre, described as "severe" by some foreign archaeologists, French Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand called for an urgent meeting with the French National Museum Scientific Committee, the body that oversees French museums, which recommended the return of the fragments to Egypt.

Mitterrand immediately decided to follow the recommendation, and though the items had been acquired by the Louvre in "good faith", Mitterrand said, the decision to return them to Egypt reflected France and the Louvre's commitment to take "resolute action against the illegal trafficking of cultural goods".

The French decision, welcomed by Egypt, has drawn attention to other collections of ancient Egyptian artefacts held in international museums, especially to objects on what Hawass called "an antiquities wish list".

This list includes the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum in London, the bust of Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, the statue of Great Pyramid architect Hemiunnu in the Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, the Dendera Temple Zodiac in the Louvre in Paris, and the bust of Kephren pyramid builder Ankhaf in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

According to SCA legal consultant Achraf El-Achmawi, in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries when many of these objects were found, Egypt typically divided objects found during excavations between the Egyptian antiquities authority and the foreign mission concerned.

This mean that foreign missions had the right to possess some of the objects discovered, which are now exhibited in museums around the world. Egypt cannot request the return of such objects unless it can be proved that they were originally stolen.

Since 2002, the SCA has had a dedicated returned antiquities department, which has successfully requested the return to Egypt from abroad of 5,000 objects originally stolen and smuggled out of the country, El-Achmawi said.

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