British Museum and archaeologist confirm identity of stolen Egyptian artefact

Amer Sultan in London , Friday 9 Aug 2013

With 1 stolen artefact identified and saved from a Christie's auction, officials continue to investigate 5 more in the largest-known theft since the January 2011 revolution


Archaeologist Hourig Sourouzian and the British Museum have identified the exact provenance of one of six artefacts allegedly looted from Egypt and meant to be auctioned through Christie's in London on 2 May.

British Museum Assistant Keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department Marcel Marée recounts to Ahram Online that he and his colleagues spotted the stolen ancient Egyptian objects from Christie’s latest catalogue listing antiquities up for sale, among which were the six artefacts that are claimed to have been in a private UK collection since the 1940s. "But I had reason to doubt this," he reveals.

The British Museum relies on an extensive network of Egyptologists who are helping trace the provenance of the possible stolen antiquities, including Hourig Sourouzian, who used to work for the German Archaeological Institute and has been conducting excavations at the Amenhotep III mortuary temple on Luxor's west bank for many years now.

Marée contacted Sourouzian, who immediately recognised the red granite relief fragment depicting a Nubian captive -  a motif found typically at the bases of colossal royal statues. The same day she sent him a screen shot from her database search, confirming that the fragment was discovered in King Amenhotep III temple in 2000.

"We are now researching the possible origins of the other five," Marée tells Ahram Online.

All six pieces – which include ancient Egyptian reliefs and statue fragments - are now in the possession of Christie’s Auction Hall until British police investigations identify the owner. 

"The department is playing a crucial role in tracing the stolen antiquities and exerting all efforts to monitor which artefacts are passing through London dealers and auction houses," he said.

The buyer who commissioned Christie’s to sell the objects claims he inherited it from his grandfather, who bought it in 1940s.

When Christie’s and UK police contacted the British Museum Marée says "We have no reason to trust the '1940s' collection history claimed for the other pieces consigned to Christie’s by the same individual," and adds: "Stopping the looting and smuggling of Egyptian antiquities is not an easy job."

Marée praises the Egyptian antiquities authorities for their protective measures, such as blocking access to tombs and employing guards to stop further looting, but he calls on authorities to do more.

"One important measure that would help bring criminals to justice is the systematic photography of every piece that is kept in storerooms, and these photos should be stored somewhere central," added Marée.

Some Egyptian officials have been quoted as saying that they are considering the idea, but it requires a huge budget.

"Such photographic documentation may take a few years, but it must and can be done; a growing photo database will have numerous additional benefits," Marée explains.

Once photographic documentation exists, continued Marée, any theft can be easily detected and reported, most notably to the London-based international database Art Loss Register (ALR) as well as among the Egyptologists' community.

In 2011, the British Museum identified four relief fragments as stolen. These came from the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, but that theft had occurred back in the 1980s. Except these six objects, no other stolen objects have come to the attention of the museum experts since the 2011 revolution.

"I have little doubt, though, that more stolen pieces are circulating, but they simply cannot be detected if no one reported them as missing - and no report is complete without photographs," Marée concludes. He and his colleagues advise the Egyptian authorities to notify the ALR and the Egyptology community all over the world of any stolen objects.

"If, in Egypt, those charged with the protection of monuments and storerooms fail to notice and report a theft, it is usually impossible for auctioneers and Egyptologists to know if some piece on the market was stolen, especially since so much of Egypt’s heritage has yet to be published."

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