Mummy's Return to Egypt Spotlights Smuggling

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Lacovara, the Emory University museum curator, said: "People don't go to an impressionist painting gallery and say, 'Why don't all of these paintings go back to Paris?'"

Museums aside, some private collectors flout the ethical and legal restrictions to which museums adhere. Their demand for artifacts fuels a thriving black market trade in antiquities, which Hawass and fellow archaeologists say is of chief concern.

Cultural History for Sale

Notable artifacts continue to leave Egypt in a steady stream—and end up far from the public eye. Hawass says protecting them will require a global effort from both Egyptian authorities and the international antiquities community.

"I think our goal and our mission is really reaching to persons all over the world [to say] that any stolen art after '72 should come back to Egypt," Hawass said. A 1972 UN convention stipulates that smuggled antiquities must be returned to their country of origin.

Antiquities theft is a practice nearly as old as antiquity. In some regions of Egypt, history is literally so thick under the ground that many can illegally excavate antiquities from their own basements.

The abundance of artifacts, combined with the poverty that grips many Egyptians, helps saturate the international antiquities market with pieces of questionable provenance.

Lacovara says that even for scrupulous collectors, legally acquiring pieces has become a "minefield."

"Artifacts have been legitimately exported from Egypt for 200 years and more. But [artifacts also] come on the market in dribs and drabs from attics and storerooms," Lacovara said.

Vikan, the Walters Art Museum curator, said: "You don't just buy the object. You buy the story." He notes that collectors must be convinced the provenance of the object complies with both local and international law. "It's a much more complex issue," he said.

Thwarting the Black Market

Hawass says global efforts to stem illicit trade in antiquities are starting to bear fruit. He cites a recent case where the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and New York City district attorney helped to reacquire illegal antiquities.

The pressure may be getting to private collectors. "An American in New York hears what we are doing and he is giving to me … some artifacts that he bought ten years ago," Hawass said. "Switzerland has been the market for storing these artifacts, and we recently received some 280 pieces that were smuggled from Egypt and stored there."

Vikan says that to confront the monumentally difficult task of stopping black market trade in antiquities, advocates must foster an sense of international responsibility and collective ownership for cultural heritage.

"When does humankind's responsibility for antiquities supercede the power in any given place?" Vikan said, citing the demolition of ancient, cliffside Buddha carvings at the hands of Taliban leaders in Afghanistan in March 2001. "Was there any way for the world community to act to save those irreplaceable, monumental Buddhas?"

Hawass agrees that the fight must be a global one, because the treasures involved are of universal importance. "It's very important that this art has to be safely kept," he said, noting that exhibitions of Egyptian antiquities are traveling to China, Paris, and Japan. "They are sent to people all over the world, because we believe that these artifacts do belong to all of us."

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