"Egyptian heritage is not for sale” chanted a group of protesters gathered outside the London-based Christie’s Auction House as 32 ancient Egyptian artefacts went under the hammer last Thursday.
“The primary reason we are protesting is because this is a private sale. I don’t mind seeing artefacts from Egypt in other museums. I don’t even mind most Egyptian artefacts being in British museums as long as they are able to be viewed by everyone,” one of the demonstrators told the UK Art Newspaper.
Another said on TV that he opposed the sale of Egyptian artefacts because Egyptian heritage was “not for sale.” It should be returned to its homeland where it belongs, he said, adding that the objects “ethically belonged” to Egypt.
Yet, despite the protests and procedures invoked by the Egyptian authorities targeting Christie’s and the British foreign office to stop the sale of these artefacts and provide ownership documents for them, the sale went ahead and 24 artefacts of the 32 have now been sold, among them the head of the god Amun with the facial features of the boy-king Tutankhamun.
Earlier this week, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities called for an urgent meeting of the National Committee for Antiquities Repatriation (NCAR) to discuss procedures to preserve Egypt’s rights after the sale of these objects.
The committee, headed by Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, includes top officials from Egypt’s ministries of foreign affairs, justice, and the interior, as well as the Prosecution-General Office, State Lawsuits Authority and former minister Zahi Hawass.
During the meeting, the committee expressed its indignation at “the unprofessional way in which the Egyptian artefacts were sold without the provision of ownership documents and proof that that the artefacts left Egypt in a legitimate manner”. It also expressed “bewilderment that the British authorities failed to provide the support expected from it in this regard”.
The committee has asked the British government for more cooperation in preventing the export of the Egyptian artefacts sold last week by Christie’s from Britain before documentation of ownership is made available to Egypt as per the ongoing cooperation between both countries in the field of archaeology, especially as there are 18 British archaeological missions currently working in Egypt.
It has also decided to ask a British law firm to take all the necessary legal procedures to file a civil lawsuit. It has expressed its appreciation for the decision taken by Egypt’s prosecution service to ask the international police agency Interpol to issue a circular to track the sale of these artefacts in any country around the world.
The Foreign Ministry is to issue directives to Egyptian embassies abroad both to monitor and observe these artefacts and notify the Egyptian authorities of their appearance in any country around the world and seek to ensure that they are seized pending inspection and verification of ownership documents.
Hawass described Christie’s action in selling the objects as “a black point on the auction house’s history, as the artefacts belong not only to the Egyptian civilisation but also to all humanity”.
He told Al-Ahram Weekly that Prince Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis, whom Christie’s claims owned the objects, was dead and had never owned an antiquities collection. This “shows that Christie’s does not have any evidence that the head was legally exported,” he said. Hawass believes that the head was looted from the Karnak Temple during the 1970s.
The Live Science magazine website, which interviewed the family and friends of the prince and gathered documents on his life, reported that both Wilhelm’s son and niece had confirmed that Wilhelm has never owned the sculpture. Furthermore, he had no interest in ancient artefacts, or art in general, it said.
“It would have been better for Christie’s to stop the sale and return the objects to their homeland to be displayed in the Grand Egyptian Museum where the whole world can view and admire them instead of being sold into private collections,” Hawass told the Weekly.
Heba Azizi, head of the Saving Egypt’s Monuments Association who organised the protest before Christie’s, told the Weekly that such a sale had led to demands to change one of the articles in the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property.
The article, Azizi said, stipulates that “the States Parties undertake, at the request of the State Party of origin, appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention in both States concerned, provided, however, that the requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has valid title to that property.”
Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, head of the ministry’s Antiquities Repatriation Department, said Germany had changed its law in 2017 to support the state party of origin and help it to recover stolen or smuggled heritage.
Over the past four years, Egypt had succeeded in repatriating 15,089 artefacts and 21,660 coins that were illegally smuggled out of the country, he said, and it would continue to do so.
At the same time, it has signed international agreements and memorandums of understanding with Switzerland, the United States, Italy and Spain, as well as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Cyprus, in the field of antiquities repatriation in an attempt to fight against the illicit trafficking of antiquities.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Stopping the trade in our monuments