Sunday, December 6, 2009

Holes in Egypt's National Collection

Here we go again with another attempt by Dr. Zahi Hawass to have the Rosetta stone, the bust of an unknown Amarna queen in Berlin and other artifacts to be returned to Egypt. Greece and Italy are up to the same thing with their own desire to re acquire cultural objects that have long left their country of origin. Though Egypt is the most aggressive at this game with Dr. Hawass being the pit bull for the cause.

The Rosetta stone in antiquity was a relatively unimportant document its fame has come to it in modern times in which European intellectuals used it to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphic script. It is unlikely the stone will ever be displayed in the Egyptian national museum at least if the current environment prevails.

There is something however to be said for the bust of the unknown queen currently in Berlin's Neues museum the provenance of which appears shaky but still favours Berlin only because the Egyptian antiquities authority representative gave the bust to the Germans in a division of finds.

The Bust held in Boston of the fourth dynasty prince Ankh haf has been suggested by Dr. Hawass should also be returned though Boston's bust was given in a fair division of finds even though it was realised that the Egyptian national collection did not possess such an object.

So here we have just 3 objects of the thousands the fine doctor would like returned and in these three objects we find an object (the bust of the queen in Berlin) that probably has a reasonable case for return. A second object(the Rosetta stone) who's modern provenance is very strong and without any legal case to be made for its return.

Still in the last object (Boston's bust) it is perhaps an insult to want back what was given as a sign of respect for the excellent excavation of the tomb of queen Hetepheres. These last circumstances can only water down the point of repatriation of stolen antiquities.

Certainly there is an issue as in the case of the fresco pieces returned from the Louvre recently as their provenance was clearly one of modern theft. A conference that does not start with a refined presentation which include objects that like the Berlin bust and objects that have left their countries of origin after the laws were in place is doomed to be a meaningless publicity stunt.

If countries like Egypt, Greece and Italy truly want to recover stolen history they need to realise that artifacts like the Elgin marbles, the Rosetta stone and the bust of Ankh haf are not part of the issue and can only act as an irritant to the repatriation of questionable objects.


Shemsu Sesen said...

Very well put.

One possible addition to the list of "probably belongs back in Egypt" would be the burial mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer currently held by the St. Louis Art Museum.

The provenance of that particular artifact would actually make a good movie--evil twins, shadey Eastern Europeans, the burgling of a warehouse jammed full of priceless artifacts--all the stereotypes of a Hollywood blockbuster.

But you really hit the point dead on. By going after high value artifacts to which Egypt has no legitimate claim, just for the media attention, Dr. Hawass makes a dog and pony show of the very real effort to regain less famous artifacts to which Egypt may be rightfully entitled.

tim said...

Hello Shemsu Sesen

The mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer is an excellent example of an object with a strong provenance which includes the masks discovery and theft even if officials in Cairo told the St. Louis art museum that it was fine for the museum to purchase it.

The provenance still says stolen!