March 19, 2017

One well documented theft = three separate seizures - Egypt's successes in curbing the sale of a stolen ancient objects

Image Credit: Antiquities Repatriation Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt
Four years after being stolen and then trafficked illegally out of Egypt, a painted wooden New Kingdom mummy mask has been returned to its country of origin this week, after turning up at a French antiquities auction in December 2016.

The mask is just one of 96 artifacts from the Pharaonic, Greek and Roman periods, discovered during foreign archaeological missions which were stolen in 2013, during a break-in of the Museum of Antiquities storage facilities at Elephantine. An archaeologically rich island, Elephantine is the largest island in the Aswan archipelago in Northern Nubia, Egypt. The island lies opposite central Aswan, just north of the First Cataract on the Nile.  


Given that the professionally excavated objects were formal discoveries by authorized archaeological missions, versus illicitly excavated, the stolen antiquities, were well documented.   This gave the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities the necessary evidentiary documentation to list the ancient objects as possibly in circulation with national and international law enforcement authorities.  

One Well Documented Theft = Numerous Separate Seizures

Monitoring the antiquities market closely, Egypt has succeeded in stopping the sale of several stolen objects from this single theft over the last few years. In this most recent incident, once the mummy mask had been spotted, Shabaan Abdel Gawad, the general supervisor of the Antiquities Repatriation Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, was able to request that the mask's auction be halted, demanding the object's return through formal channels via the Egyptian embassy in Paris.

Image Credit: Antiquities Repatriation
Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt
Earlier, on January 29, 2017, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced that a deputy from the British Museum had handed over a 16.5 centimeter tall, carved wooden Ushabti statue with gold inscriptions.  This ancient object, stolen during the same break-in, had been relinquished by a British citizen. The funerary object had been excavated by Spanish archaeologists at the site of the Qubbet al-Hawa Necropolis in Aswan, and dates to ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period (circa 1990 BCE – 1775 BCE). 

Ushabti statues, sometimes called simply "Shabtis" by dealers in the antiquities trade, are very popular with ancient art collectors. These small wooden and stone figurines were once placed in Egyptian tombs, intended to function as the servants of the deceased during their afterlife.

Image Credit: Antiquities Repatriation
Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt
On June 14, 2015 a 2,300 year old Ancient Egyptian ivory statuette was identified up for sale at the Aton Gallery of Egyptian Art in Oberhausen, Germany. Stolen during the same 2013 robbery, this 11.5 cm tall, statuette of a man carrying a gazelle over his shoulders, was unearthed in 2008 by a Swiss archaeological mission that had been carrying out excavations at the Khnum Temple at Elephantine.  Once identified at the auction house, the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry reported the auction to INTERPOL.

The statuette is believed to date back to Egypt's Late Period, from 664-332 BCE which ended with the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

According to a screenshot grabbed by ARCA on June 14, 2015 (and since removed from the dealer's website), the web page depicted the object's upcoming auction and included a reserve price of $5050.  At the time of the auction, Aton Gallery had listed the provenance for the ivory figurine as being part of a German private collection, formed in the 60s and 70s, before being part of an earlier American Collection formed in the 1930s.  Misleading provenance, in this case either by the auction house or the consignor, underscores how easy stolen and looted antiquities can be made to appear part of older more established collections, when in fact they are not. 
ARCA Screenshot capture: June 14, 2015
Piece by priceless piece, Egypt is taking collectors and dealers to task.  And while 93 of the 96 stolen items are still out there, three recoveries are better than none.  

France Desmarais of ICOM’s International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods has stated 

"Stolen items are not necessarily lost forever because many can be recovered and will inevitably resurface at some point in time, whether in the art market or while crossing borders."

But Egypt’s police force and governmental heritage authorities can only do so much in their protection of the country’s thousands of archaeological sites, museums and historical objects.  This vulnerability is something looters are all too aware of. 

Playing on the limited resources of source countries, especially those suffering from political turmoil, looters, middlemen and traffickers can wait years before floating highly valued pieces onto the licit art market.   In the interim, those dealing in black market sales sustain themselves financially on the proceeds derived from a small but steady trickle of smaller finds, often dribbled out to lesser known dealers and galleries. As the art market is adapting to online sales, some items are not being sold through brick and mortar shops any longer, instead, objects are passing through simple one on one, online or social media transactions. 

But while objects from well documented thefts like the one on the Elephantine storeroom eventually do resurface, the process of identify-seizure-forfeiture, on an object by object basis is a painfully slow, and only moderately successful, road to repatriation.  

To staunch the flow of high demand antiquities for vulnerable source countries collectors must begin to hold themselves more accountable.  Knowing what we know today, collectors should curb their consumerist tendencies of wanting what they want when purchasing ancient art without documentation of legal export. More often than not, antiquities without sound paperwork have a higher probability of having been stolen or looted. 

It's time for collectors to take themselves to task, taking stock in the origins of their past purchases and voluntarily relinquishing items bought in the past without concern for legality, when they have have contributed to the theft and looting of historic sites around the globe.

Doing the Right Thing

If you are a collector and you suspect an antiquity you have purchased may have been looted or stolen, here are some things you can do.


If your object is on one of these lists, consult with your local museum's curatorial staff. 

Lastly, Interpol, National Law Enforcement, UNESCO, ICOM and organizations like ARCA maintain contacts with experts familiar with looted and stolen art.   If you have doubts about a purchase and don't know who to contact or need help with the ancient remains in a specific country, please write to us here

By:  Lynda Albertson

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