Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The case of the missing artefacts

How did 32,000 artefacts apparently disappear from Ministry of Antiquities stores? , Nevine El-Aref investigates

Nevine El-Aref
Nevine El-Aref

The Ministry of Antiquities came in for ferocious criticism this week after the publication of a report from its Warehouses Administration revealing the apparent disappearance of around 32,000 artefacts from 11 stores across the country.

Although the announcement was part of the preparation of an inventory of lost artefacts in an attempt to provide a list of all losses over recent decades so that these could be tracked down by INTERPOL and other bodies, the extent of the losses was still surprising. 

The report indicates the number of the missing artefacts and the sites from which they have been lost. It says that artefacts are missing from the Atfih, Tel Al-Pharaeen, Mustafa Kamel, Qantara East, Dakhla and Kom Oshim stores, as well as stores in Abul-Goud, Al-Sheikh Hamad and Qurna.

“The report prepared by the Warehouses Administration identifies all the artefacts registered in ministry documents whether or not they entered the stores,” Ayman Ashmawi, head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Department at the ministry, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He said the majority of the registered artefacts had gone missing before entering the ministry’s stores.

“Approximately 31,000 of the artefacts were lost before the criminalisation of the antiquities trade under Law 117/1983,” Ashmawi said, adding that under the law antiquities traders were obliged to either hand over antiquities in their possession or retain them without the right of sale.

However, antiquities trader Zaki Mohareb had owned around 34,000 artefacts before the passage of the 1983 law, and he had sold 31,000 of them between 1973 and 1977 without breaking the law.

The family had had a licence to sell antiquities completely legally, allowing it to legally acquire them for resale. 

“Before the prohibition of the antiquities trade in Egypt, the family sold a large number of artefacts after obtaining permits from the Antiquities Authority at the time. All they needed was a bill including the name of the sold object, its number and the buyer’s personal data,” Ashmawi said.

He said that a report submitted to the General Prosecution Authority at the time had shown that the number of registered items owned by Mohareb was 34,060 pieces, among them 1,063 replicas. A further 14,920 items were not registered.

A collection of 112 artefacts mentioned in this week’s report had not entered ministry stores, Ashmawi said. After their discovery in the early 1950s by an archaeological mission led by Ibrahim Rezkana of Cairo University, they were kept in the university’s stores. In 2001, some of these artefacts had been auctioned in the United States, and subsequent investigations had shown that they had been stolen from the university’s stores.

“The rest of the objects in the university’s stores were then transferred to the stores of the ministry, as well as university documents recording the missing objects,” Ashmawi added.

A further 1,462 objects were stolen from the stores in Tel Al-Pharaeen, Qantara East and Saqqara during the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution, he said, and the ministry had launched an official investigation into the missing items.

Commenting on the case of Zaki Mohareb, mentioned in this week’s report, Mahmoud Khalil, director of the Antiquities Possession Department at the ministry, said that Mohareb had been a well-known dealer trading legally in accordance with Law 215/1951.

 The Antiquities Authority at the time only reviewed his collection, and when a piece was sold it wrote the words “seen and sold” beside the items registered in its documents. “However, unfortunately Mohareb did not report every piece he sold to the ministry, so some may still be registered,” Khalil said.

He added that after Mohareb’s death his wife had offered the ministry the rest of his collection in 2002, which included 2,000 mummies and 17,456 artefacts. Because there had not been enough space in the Abul-Goud store, the ministry had delayed transport of the collection until 2005.

Said Shebl, head of the Warehouses Administration, confirmed that the new report was the result of an inventory carried out over the last few months. “More than 95 per cent of the objects mentioned are objects that were never in the ministry stores,” he said.

Some had been missing for more than 50 years, while others were stolen during the lack of security that prevailed in the wake of the 25 January Revolution. A robbery had taken place in 2015, but the offender had been arrested and all the pieces recovered.

Shebl said that this had been confirmed by the inventory committees of the Supreme Council of Antiquities over previous years, and the necessary legal procedures had been followed by the authorities at the time.

He said that the ministry’s new database aimed to draw up an inventory of all lost antiquities over a period of more than 50 years, to follow up what had not been recovered, and to report to the international and local police services.

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