Antiquities and Archaeology
No consensus on tackling Egypt looting
Everyone agrees on the need to act, but controversy remains over what will work
By Anny Shaw. Web only
Published online: 30 April 2014
Looting in Egypt has reached crisis point, but there is widespread disagreement over the best way to stop the theft and illegal trade of antiquities. Cultural heritage experts in the US have signed a pact to tackle the issue, and companies such as eBay and Christie’s have pledged their support. Meanwhile, ordinary Egyptians are turning to Twitter to try to save their heritage. Monica Hanna, the Egyptian archaeologist who tweeted for help last August after thieves swept through the Malawi National Museum in Minya, is campaigning to create watchdog groups around Egypt who will use social media to alert others to looting. Public pressure is also causing the US government to act.
Because the US is considered a target market for the looted artefacts, the Egyptian government wants to impose emergency trade restrictions, which are intended to give customs officials greater powers to seize artefacts that do not have valid export documents. As a signatory to the 1970 Unesco Convention, Egypt can request that the US impose temporary restrictions of the import of the most endangered categories of Egyptian cultural heritage, but opponents fear the restrictions will extend to all objects of a certain age (to be determined). Further, some US experts say the sanctions will harm the interests of legitimate collectors and dealers, and in any case will not stop the looting.
Critics also question the legality of the process, saying the government has not followed the proper system of checks and balances. Peter Tompa, a cultural heritage lawyer, says that the US State Department has failed to respond to concerns raised by members of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which advises the US president, about the transparency of the process—including the lack of any public consultation. “The department seems determined to complete as many and as broad memorandums of understanding as possible, at the expense of small businesses and collectors,” Tompa says.
In a separate move, the Egyptian antiquities minister has signed a public-private partnership agreement with the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities, whose members include the Capitol Archaeological Institute at the George Washington University, the Archaeological Institute of America, the American Schools of Oriental Research and the National Geographic Society—all of whom support the emergency sanctions. The aim of the agreement is to prevent illegal trade as well as to provide training for Egyptians to protect their heritage sites.
Research by the Antiquities Coalition produced last year suggests thefts at archaeological sites in Egypt have rocketed by between 500% and 1,000% since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. “The illegal trade of Egyptian antiquities is a worldwide problem, but the US is one of the target markets,” says Andrew Moore, the president of the Archaeological Institute of America. “There’s no doubt that the organised trafficking of Egyptian antiquities has increased in the US.” Figures compiled by the US International Trade Commission reveal that $10.7m-worth of Egyptian archaeological, historical and ethnographic goods were imported to the US in 2013—an increase of 105.5% on 2012, when imports were worth $5.2m. In 2011 imports totalled $1.2m. The figures do not include undocumented, smuggled objects.
Some heritage experts disagree that the US is at the heart of the problem. “There are only a handful of people selling or collecting Egyptian art in the US today, and the market is for works that have been out of Egypt for at least 40 years, with good provenance and clean title,” says the art lawyer Kate Fitz Gibbon of Fitz Gibbon Law. The import figures include all archaeological, historical and ethnographic objects originally created in Egypt, irrespective of whether they have been housed in collections in other countries for several years, or whether they have come directly from Egypt. The import of one or two valuable objects could account for the jumps in value year-on-year, says Michael McCullough, a US customs law specialist.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Christie’s New York says there has been no net increase in the number of Egyptian objects consigned for sale since 2011, but that the auction house remains “vigilant” when handling antiquities from this region.
Deborah Lehr, the chairman of the Capitol Archaeological Institute, urges the international community to step in, praising Monica Hanna in an opinion piece published on The World Post website in March. “Heroes like Hanna need outside help because of the scope of the problem, the lack of available domestic resources and the lack of international co-operation,” Lehr says.
Update, 30 April 2014: A meeting between the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and the US Department of State has now been scheduled for 2-4 June, when the request by the Egyptian government for sanctions will be reviewed. There will be an opportunity for public comment on 2 June.
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