I rather like the picture of the Egyptian statue with suitcases.
Zahi Hawass regards the Rosetta Stone, like so much else, as stolen property languishing in exile. “We own that stone,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking as the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.
The British Museum does not agree — at least not yet. But never underestimate Dr. Hawass when it comes to this sort of custody dispute. He has prevailed so often in getting pieces returned to what he calls their “motherland” that museum curators are scrambling to appease him.
Last month, after Dr. Hawass suspended the Louvre’s excavation in Egypt, the museum promptly returned the ancient fresco fragments he sought. Then the Metropolitan Museum of Art made a pre-emptive display of its “appreciation” and “deep respect” by buying a piece of a shrine from a private collector so that it could be donated to Egypt.
Now an official from the Neues Museum in Berlin is headed to Egypt to discuss Dr. Hawass’s demand for its star attraction, a bust of Nefertiti.
These gestures may make immediate pragmatic sense for museum curators worried about getting excavation permits and avoiding legal problems. But is this trend ultimately good for archaeology?
Scientists and curators have generally supported the laws passed in recent decades giving countries ownership of ancient “cultural property” discovered within their borders. But these laws rest on a couple of highly debatable assumptions: that artifacts should remain in whatever country they were found, and that the best way to protect archaeological sites is to restrict the international trade in antiquities.
In some cases, it makes aesthetic or archaeological sense to keep artifacts grouped together where they were found, but it can also be risky to leave everything in one place, particularly if the country is in turmoil or can’t afford to excavate or guard all its treasures. After the Metropolitan Museum was pressured to hand over a collection called the Lydian Hoard, one of the most valuable pieces was stolen several years ago from its new home in Turkey.
Restricting the export of artifacts hasn’t ended their theft and looting any more than the war on drugs has ended narcotics smuggling. Instead, the restrictions promote the black market and discourage the kind of open research that would benefit everyone except criminals.
Legitimate dealers, museums and private collectors have a financial incentive to pay for expert excavation and analysis of artifacts, because that kind of documentation makes the objects more valuable. A nation could maintain a public registry of discoveries and require collectors to give scholars access to the artifacts, but that can be accomplished without making everything the property of the national government.
The timing of Dr. Hawass’s current offensive, as my colleague Michael Kimmelman reported, makes it look like retribution against the Westerners who helped prevent an Egyptian from becoming the leader of Unesco, the United Nation’s cultural agency. But whatever the particular motivation, there is no doubt that the cultural-property laws have turned archeological discoveries into political weapons.
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