Armed Attack on Antiquities Storehouse in Egypt

After the resignation of Zahi Hawass, there are reports of looting and theft including one disturbing report from Kafr el-Sheikh on Saturday:

Forty armed men attacked an antiquities warehouse in the northern Egyptian city of Kafr el-Sheikh on Saturday, shooting at warehouse security men and injuring several, state news agency MENA said. The attack is the second attempt to rob Kafr el-Sheikh’s Tal al-Faraeen (Hill of the Pharaohs) antiquities warehouse since Jan. 25, the first day of the nationwide protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11.

The warehouse doors were destroyed as were display cases, MENA cited the Head of the Central Department of Lower Egyptian Antiquities Mohamed Abdel Maksoud as saying. Some of the attackers had been caught, while others had escaped, he said.

In a statement on his blog yesterday, Hawass confirmed these reports.

So what concrete steps can be taken now? Chris Marinello and the Art Loss Register have pledged their support, but their efforts require the authorities in Egypt to notify them of the specific objects which have been taken. Larry Rothfield argues that while public statements are a necessary step, they have no real effect. He argues institutions should call on their members to help identify and reclaim missing objects, and to pool resources to hire locals and security personnel to protect storehouses and sites. He also suggest financial and logistical support could be provided by the United States to help Egyptians secure and guard their sites.

  1. Forty armed men attack Egypt antiquities store-MENA, Reuters, March 5, 2011, http://af.reuters.com/article/egyptNews/idAFLDE7240E820110305 (last visited Mar 7, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

St. Louis Art Museum Sues the United States to Preclude a Forfeiture

The Ka Nefer Nefer Mask, acquired in 1998 by SLAM

The St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) has sued the federal government to preclude it from initiating a forfeiture claim against the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask. The museum was approached in January by several U.S. attorneys in January, who indicated an intention to bring a forfeiture action against the mask. Civil forfeiture was the legal mechanism under which the Portrait of Wally litigation and subsequent settlement emerged. It is a powerful tool for claimants, which uses the resources of the federal government, and a favorable burden of proof, to pursue claims for objects which may have been looted or stolen.

But in this case, rather than waiting for the forfeiture action, the museum has decided to try to preclude a suit by the U.S. attorneys, arguing that from December-January of 2005-06, the U.S. was a party to several communications regarding questions with respect to the history of the mask. They use as examples, posts and emails sent by Ton Cremers, of the Museum Security Network. He sent at least two emails to Bonnie Magness-Gardiner of the FBI, INTERPOL, as well as James McAndrew at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Museum’s complaint quotes emails from Cremers, which were published on the Museum Security Network:

  1. “So I should think that if the Egyptian Government lodged a complaint or request with the USA Government and the FBI Crime Team (to which I am copying this), then the Museum would be obliged to answer the questions.”  
  2. “The FBI is just waiting for Egypt to file a complaint.  A [sic] soon as Egypt files a complaint [sic] the FBI is expected to act.” 
  3. “Maarten Raven, a Dutch archaeologist, saw the mask in the Saqqara and is VERY positive that the mask in the SLAM [Museum] is the same as . . .the one stolen in Saqqara . . . .

The SLAM argues in the complaint that the relevant U.S. government officials had knowledge of the potential claim over five years ago, and the five-year statute of limitations period has expired under 19 U.S.C. § 1621. A court will decide whether these emails, and queries the Museum sent to INTERPOL in the 1990’s about the mask are sufficient to have given the U.S. government actual or constructive knowledge of the potential claim. The Museum seeks a declaratory judgment under the Tariff Act that the action is barred by the statute of limitations.

Even if successful, this suit would only preclude a suit by the U.S. government. It would not bless the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the mask. The mask was acquired in 1998 by SLAM from Phoenix Ancient Art for a reported $500,000. The Museum has attempted to demonstrate its diligence in a number of ways when it acquired the mask.

  • It sent a letter to Mohammed Saleh, the retired director of the Cairo Museum asking about the mask or the existence of similar objects. 
  • The Museum contacted the Art Loss Register, INTERPOL, and the International Federation of Art Research.
  • In 1998″counsel for the Museum requested a Swiss attorney to conduct a background investigation of Phoenix, its owners, and Jelinek.  Museum counsel received responses from the Swiss attorney on February 18 and March 31, 1998, confirming a Suzana Jelinek resided at the address provided by Phoenix, and confirming Phoenix’s company existence, Dun & Bradstreet rating, and that there were no liens or encumbrances on business property belonging to Phoenix.”
  • The Museum also sent a letter to the Missouri Highway Patrol requesting a search of the Interpol database.
So these are efforts to look at the history of the object, but certainly are not the best efforts. The Museum did not contact the Supreme Council of Antiquities or the Culture Ministry. The SLAM has told the public and Egypt that they would return the mask to Egypt if they were presented evidence that the mask was looted or stolen, yet Egypt has not presented this evidence. We know that the mask was acquired by the Museum in 1998, and was excavated in 1952. Both Egypt and the Museum have very different versions of the subsequent history of the mask. We are not certain what happened in the intervening years. But given what we know about the antiquities trade we have strong suspicions. The Museum argues the U.S. government has waited too long to pursue its claims that the object was stolen. 
  1. Joe Harris, Museum Sues USA Over Mummy Mask, Courthouse News Service, February 16, 2011, http://www.courthousenews.com/2011/02/16/34223.htm (last visited Feb 16, 2011).
  2. Jennifer Mann, Art museum sues to keep Egyptian mummy mask, St. Louis Today, February 16, 2011, http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/article_6a5937bc-0ea6-50ca-94ab-aa45697af009.html (last visited Feb 16, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Protesting Zahi Hawass

Antiquities Graduates Demand Employment (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Demonstrators in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt are demanding Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass resign:

The demonstration in a leafy enclave of Cairo was one of many protests and strikes that have sprung up in Egypt as people voice their grievances for the first time after Mubarak’s heavyhanded reign over the last three decades.

The archaeologists’ protest was also deeply personal, with protesters saying Hawass was a “showman” and publicity hound with little regard for thousands of archaeology students who have been unable to find work in their field.

“He doesn’t care about us,” said 22-year-old Gamal el-Hanafy, who graduated from Cairo University in 2009 and carried his school certificates in a folder. “He just cares about propaganda.”

Hawass has maintained that his first love is Egypt’s heritage, not himself, and that courting publicity raises the national profile.

The rally was raucous but peaceful. Several soldiers blocked protesters from entering the Supreme Council of Antiquities building in the Zamalek district on an island in the Nile that was largely spared the chaos that gripped Cairo. An armored personnel carrier parked in the street, a helmeted soldier poking out of a hatch.

The minister did not appear, and a roar of disapproval swept the crowd when someone said he had slipped out the back door. Then there was a rumor, unconfirmed but no less damaging to his image, that his car had clipped a pedestrian. The protesters dispersed at dusk, and promised to return.

The graduates said the antiquities ministry had offered them three-month contracts at 450 Egyptian pounds ($75) a month, hardly enough to survive. They noted that Egypt’s tourism industry is a major foreign currency earner, and yet it was unclear how exactly the government was spending the income.

A foreign tourist spends up to 160 Egyptian pounds ($27) to visit the pyramids of Giza and descend into a tomb there, said 25-year-old Said Hamid. Multiply that, he said, by the thousands who used to visit daily until upheaval drove away foreign visitors and plunged the lucrative industry into crisis. . . . 

 These protests come after Zahi Hawass has revealed that 18 objects had been removed from the museum, though some may have been returned.

Hawass is a showman. He has garnered a great deal of attention, and also raised the profile for Egypt’s heritage, and its calls for repatriation. But in the new Egypt, will that approach still be suitable? I can understand the frustration of recent graduates, angry that they are paid very little. How will this shape the relationships Egypt has with foreign archaeologists?

  1. The Associated Press: Protesters target Egypt’s antiquities chief, February 14, 2011, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gNv6IKRhurEYPmjAzVk86a0tsX8g?docId=d818e386afeb449d988b51bc767e96d7 (last visited Feb 14, 2011).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Firsthand Report of Looting in Saqqara

The step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

There are a number of conflicting reports emerging from Egypt, and as evacuated members of foreign archaeological missions arrive home, we are learning more about what took place in the chaos last weekend. Zahi Hawass is reporting on his website that sites are being protected and that reports of rumors of looting at places like Saqqara are not true. Yet Lee Rosenbaum has been forwarded a firsthand account from a French archaeologists that describes looting last weekend:

The French Archaeological Mission at Saqqara has just left Egypt yesterday and arrived safe today. As most of you are in lack of direct information concerning what happened there, I will try to tell you in brief what I saw. 
On Saturday, the taftish [on-site officer from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities] asked us to stop the work, because the police were not in the capacity of protecting us anymore. In the afternoon, we could see that the police at the police station at the entrance of the resthouses was gone and had left us alone. That is when it all began: Robbers from Saqqara and Abusir became aware of this and they began to spread in the gebel [mountainous desert].
The first afternoon and night, they mainly attacked places which were secured with locks. They broke them and went inside. Most of the time, they destroyed what they saw and not robbed anything, trying to find “treasures.” These are not well organised robbers but, mainly, young people from 10 to 20, very probably looking for gold. That is why, when they saw blocks of stone, they most of the time left them, or destroyed them in order to find what was underneath.
I could see them with my eyes the day after, when we made a tour in the gebel with the army. Around 5 p.m., when the sun was still not down, at the muslim cemetery of Abusir, I counted more than 200 young men, excavating in front of us, ready to flee if the army would come down. A tank of the army was there, but they kept on digging. The soldiers were not numerous enough to do anything else than showing they were here. And when we went back, they probably came back in the highs. They were laughing and throwing stones at us. 
. . .

After three days, more and more soldiers arrived in Saqqara and secured more and more of the area. The worse days were Saturday and Sunday. It looks like the army is now securing most of the area, and they made clear that anyone taken would be taken to jail. Hope it works.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Hawass says Egyptian Museum "Raided"

Zahi Hawass claimed that two mummies have been destroyed, and the museum was “raided”, in an appearance on Egyptian state television:

CAIRO Jan 29 (Reuters) – Looters broke into the Egyptian Museum during anti-government protests late on Friday and destroyed two Pharaonic mummies, Egypt’s top archaeologist told state television.

The museum in central Cairo, which has the world’s biggest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, is adjacent to the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party that protesters had earlier set ablaze. Flames were seen still pouring out of the party headquarters early on Saturday.

“I felt deeply sorry today when I came this morning to the Egyptian Museum and found that some had tried to raid the museum by force last night,” Zahi Hawass, chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said on Saturday.

“Egyptian citizens tried to prevent them and were joined by the tourism police, but some (looters) managed to enter from above and they destroyed two of the mummies,” he said.

He added looters had also ransacked the ticket office.

The two-storey museum, built in 1902, houses tens of thousands of objects in its galleries and storerooms, including most of the King Tutankhamen collection. (Reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Writing by Patrick Werr)

Looters destroy mummies in Egyptian Museum-official | News by Country | Reuters

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More on Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park

Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park

Abbie Swanson of WNYC has a good update on the merits of the criticism leveled by Zahi Hawass of the treatment of ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ in Central Park. I have a short appearance in the story, but the real interesting reporting comes from her interview of Will Raynolds, who wrote his Masters Thesis on the monument:

Raynolds said that in its first four years in New York, large sheaths of granite came loose from the surface of Cleopatra’s Needle. An additional 780 pounds of stone were lost when a waterproofing company tried to stop the decay with a creosote and paraffin treatment in 1884. But the last major study of the monument, conducted by the Metropolitan Museum in 1983, found that the rate of decay had stabilized. The Parks Department says now there is no significant ongoing erosion on the obelisk.

“And yet, you know there are still signs that there’s some gradual erosion occurring on the surface,” Raynolds said, adding that you can see patches of decay where the obelisk’s native pink color appears on the surface of the stone.

So the monument is eroding, but the very eroded sections were done initially when the monument was first in New York. Mark Durney did some searching of the New York Times archives and found something similar:

[I]in May 1914, the Central Park commissioner with the help of Columbia University’s James Kemp and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s William Kuckro began extensive restorative work on the obelisk during which they removed a paraffin layer, which was added soon after the obelisk’s erection, and they added a new waterproof coating. At this time the obelisk’s condition was described as “scaling on all sides,” and, “in some sections the shaft was blank for several feet.” The NYTimes’ description from 1914 appears to appropriately describe the damage, or deterioration, similar to that which is depicted in photographs on Hawass’s blog.

So it certainly would not hurt to continue to study the conditions in New York, and the steps which can be taken to minimize damage, but my initial guess was correct. Zahi Hawass was making unfounded allegations to continue to press for the repatriation of objects. He may have a good claim for a number of objects, but that argument loses its steam when you make the same urgent calls for every object which originated in Egypt, irrespective of the circumstances surrounding its removal. Many of these individual objects carry unique circumstances, and all sides in these contentious arguments would be well-served to avoid premature or overly critical concerns.

WNYC Audio:

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The Central Park Obelisk

The Obelisk in Central Park 

On January 4th, Zahi Hawass posted on his blog parts of a letter he sent to New York City May Bloomberg which was erected in Central Park in 1880. Hawass was not criticizing the installation of the monument, or the way in which Frederick Olmstead installed it in his grand park. Rather Hawass voiced some concerns about weathering being done to the hieroglyphic text on the needle. News of the fact that New York is not caring for an ancient Egyptian obelisk soon spread. David Gill argued “Noth Americans” who are critical of the situation at Pompeii should be “chastened”. But I’m  not at all sure that weathering is actually taking place, and I do not see how Zahi Hawass can make that claim either: he has made his allegations on the basis of some photographs which he was sent.

This is certainly outside my area of expertise, so I’d appreciate any corrections in the comments below. But it seems to me like Hawass is making some unfounded allegations. He is claiming that the air pollution, rain, snow and wind in New York are wearing down the obelisk. And from this image, some kind of weathering certainly seems to have happened. But why is the face to the right of the photographer still in very good condition? Moreover, in the comments on his blog, Hawass does not make any specific claims, or provide any possible remedies. He only makes a loud claim, that New York and Central Park are not caring for this object. How do we know the obelisk did not look like this before it was removed to New York?

It seems to me that Hawass is instead trying to argue that wealthier nations are not caring for antiquities, and arguing that he and Egypt will. He says that “If the Central Park Conservancy and the City of New York cannot properly care for this obelisk, I will take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin.”

No one can fault Hawass for his passion, but here I think his criticism of the care for this obelisk is misguided. Is there something toxic about New York that is prematurely weathering this obelisk? What about the similar obelisks in London and Paris? 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com