Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1396, (31 May - 6 June 2018)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1396, (31 May - 6 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Smuggled artefacts seized

Thousands of smuggled Ancient Egyptian artefacts were seized in Italy last week, with measures now being taken to ensure their return to Egypt, writes Nevine El-Aref

Smuggled artefacts seized

The world’s appetite for antiquities seems to be endless, and as long as there is demand, the illegal excavations and the smuggling of antiquities continue. Unscrupulous collectors are always on the lookout for artefacts to add to their collections and are prepared to pay large sums to acquire the objects of their desires.

The breakdown in security that followed the collapse of the Iraqi and Libyan regimes, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and the 25 January Revolution in Egypt have all encouraged the illicit looting and trading in antiquities with illegal entities such as the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group using the trade as a source of revenues to finance their operations.

As if to bear out such concerns, late last week the Italian police in the shape of the Carabinieri forces for the protection of cultural heritage in Naples and Rome and the Salerno customs office seized containers filled with stolen archaeological artefacts from Egypt and other countries from a cargo ship docked in the port of Salerno.

La Città, a daily newspaper, reported that the archaeological finds had been stolen by IS terrorists and included an Ancient Egyptian mask covered with gold, a sarcophagus and a terracotta model of a boat with 40 rowers. Investigations are underway to trace the origin of these pieces, which represent only a small fraction of what was in the container.

Ottopagine, an Italian news website, reported that the investigations would try to trace the provenance of the objects. It said the seized collection was now being held in an archaeological museum in Nocera Inferiore, a city in Campania, that also hosts other artefacts scheduled to be transferred to their countries of origin.

The website claimed that the ship carrying the container had come from the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement refuting reports claiming that the seized goods were found inside a container belonging to the Egyptian Embassy in Rome.

Ahmed Abu Zeid, spokesman for the ministry, said in the statement that the Italian Antiquities and Tourism Police had informed the Egyptian Embassy in Rome that they had seized 23,700 artefacts, including 118 Ancient Egyptian items enclosed inside a diplomatic container.

Smuggled artefacts seized

“The Egyptian Embassy immediately sent a CD containing images of the artefacts to the cultural department at the Foreign Ministry in Cairo to brief the Ministry of Antiquities and verify their authenticity and to respond to the inquiries of the Italian officials in order to complete the investigations,” the statement said.

Abu Zeid added that the Egyptian Embassy in Rome had also contacted the deputy commander of the Italian Tourism and Antiquities Police, as well as the Italian Foreign Ministry, to clarify whether the container had originated from Alexandria or had only passed through the port on its way to Italy.

“The Italian side reported that their contacts in the customs administration at the port had indicated that the artefacts were found last year and the shipment did not belong to an Egyptian diplomat but to an Italian citizen,” the statement said.

 Italian officials promised to provide further clarification on the container’s departure date and the exporting party at the earliest opportunity.

“The ministry is following up with the Italian side through the Egyptian Embassy in Rome to uncover all the details related to the incident and to hold accountable those responsible for smuggling the Egyptian artefacts, if their authenticity is indeed proven,” the statement concluded.

Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry’s Repatriation Department, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the ministry had appointed a special archaeological committee to look into the authenticity of the 118 Ancient Egyptian artefacts seized by the Naples Police. The committee had validated the authenticity of the majority of them, he said.

He said the objects had been stolen from illegal excavation sites, as there was no record of them in any Egyptian museum or storage facility.

The artefacts include a collection of pottery from different Pharaonic eras, as well as parts of sarcophagi and coins. They also include objects from the Islamic period. Abdel-Gawad said the Foreign Ministry was working with the Italian authorities to return the objects to Egypt.

He added that according to a memorandum of understanding signed in 2009 between Egypt and Italy, Ancient Egyptian objects would be returned to their homeland.

Over the last decade, Egypt has signed several bilateral agreements with Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Peru, the United States and other countries on the illicit trade in antiquities in an attempt to return stolen and illegally smuggled antiquities.

A UNESCO 1971 Convention on the matter does not guarantee the recovery of stolen objects and has not been signed by all the world’s countries.

“For several years now, the Egyptian authorities have been actively pursuing the return of artefacts that have been illegally smuggled out of the country,” Abdel-Gawad told the Weekly, adding that in the last two years Egypt had succeeded in recovering 1,000 objects that had been stolen and illegally smuggled.

Egyptian Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadek has tasked the Ministry of Antiquities with sending a team of archaeological experts to Italy to examine the Ancient Egyptian artefacts.

According to an official statement, the prosecution authorities said the experts would work in collaboration with the Italian authorities to inspect the seized artefacts and prepare a report for the prosecution, which has requested official assistance on the incident from the Italian judicial services.

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