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Egyptian antiquities tzar wields power

Zahi Hawass [1] talks about how his country needs to reclaim more artefacts to fill the new museums that it is currently building.

New York Sun [2]

Egypt’s Antiquities Tsar Wields His Power
July 12, 2007

Egypt currently has a dozen new museums under construction — and not enough masterpieces of ancient art to fill them, the secretary-general of the Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, said yesterday in an interview.

“People used to say that Egypt does not have good museums. We have better museums now than they have,” Mr. Hawass, who is in New York to promote the Discovery Channel documentary, “Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen,” about the possible identification of the mummy of Hatshepsut, said. But “we don’t have enough objects,” Mr. Hawass said.

An archaeologist, Mr. Hawass has made it his mission since he took office to draw international attention to Egypt’s antiquities and to recover those that may have been smuggled abroad. His leadership has been marked by strict — though, some might argue, occasionally arbitrary — standards. The identification of the mummy now believed to be Hatshepsut could not have been made until recently, for instance, because Mr. Hawass did not allow genetic testing on mummies. (As part of his argument for this mummy’s being Hatshepsut, he has said that genetic evidence ties it to that of the royal matriarch Ahmose Nefertari.)

Mr. Hawass changed his position on genetic testing after the Discovery Channel offered to fund an Egyptian-run lab in the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He said he had previously considered the risk of contamination and error in a lab outside of Egypt too great. “In a modern DNA lab, you can have 40% mistakes,” he said. “If a Japanese scientist will examine a mummy of one of the pharaohs in a modern lab, it is possible the result will be that the origin of the mummy is Japanese!”

He has also insisted that Egypt be paid handsomely for touring exhibitions, such as ” Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” which is currently at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, and has been to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, and the Field Museum in Chicago. Egypt reportedly charged each venue a flat fee of as much as $5 million, in addition to taking a substantial percentage of the ticket and souvenir sales. “There is no more free meal,” Mr. Hawass said. He said Egypt has so far raised $40 million from the exhibit, an amount that will go toward the construction of the new museums.

Mr. Hawass also predicted that the Tutankhamun exhibit would come to New York — either to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Brooklyn Museum — after it returns from London next year. The Met had originally declined to be part of the tour because of its policy of not charging for individual exhibitions; it is unclear why the museum would reconsider now. A spokeswoman for the Brooklyn Museum did not return phone calls.

In recent months, Mr. Hawass has asked museums around the world to loan their Egyptian masterpieces to Egypt for the openings of two new museums, the Atum Museum in 2010 and the Grand Museum of Egypt in 2012. He is requesting the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum; the bust of Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin; the bust of Ankhhaf from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Dendera Temple zodiac from the Louvre, and the statue of the pyramid architect Hemiunu from the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany. (In the past, Mr. Hawass has maintained that these objects should be returned to Egypt outright. He said the loan requests did not represent a retreat, but an effort to demonstrate good will.)

So far the requests have met with, at best, mixed results. Mr. Hawass said he received a letter last week from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, agreeing to organize a joint German-Egyptian committee to determine if it is safe for the bust of Nefertiti to travel to Egypt.

A spokeswoman for the MFA in Boston confirmed that the museum did receive a letter asking for a loan of the bust of Ankhhaf, but that, due to its fragility, it can’t travel. “It has a specially sealed case, and we don’t even move it up to conservation lab because of the fear of damage to the surface,” the spokeswoman, Dawn Griffin, said. “We are obviously open to loaning objects to the [Egyptian] museum, but that particular object can’t be loaned.”

Mr. Hawass is also intent on making antiquities trafficking a serious crime in Egypt. Currently, it only brings a five-year sentence, but a law before the parliament would increase that to 25 years. The law would also, Mr. Hawass said, make it illegal for foreign museums to make full-size replicas of Egyptian antiquities without obtaining Egypt’s permission.

Egypt has recovered several stolen antiquities from America while Mr. Hawass has been in office. Last summer, with the help of American authorities, Egypt recovered a 4,000-year-old alabaster vessel that was to be auctioned at Christie’s in New York. Mr. Hawass said that the vessel arrived in Egypt last week.

His battle with the Saint Louis Art Museum over the ownership of an ancient mask has proven less successful. Mr. Hawass claims that the mask, called the mask of Ka-nefer-nefer, was stolen from Egypt at some point since the 1950s, when it was registered as belonging to the government. He says he has offered the museum’s director, Brent Benjamin, proof of its being stolen. Mr. Benjamin has denied having seen convincing evidence and maintains that the museum did due diligence when it purchased the mask in 1998 from Phoenix Ancient Art in New York, independently verifying the ownership history, as well as checking with Interpol, the Art Loss Register, and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to see if there was any record of its being stolen.

“We will write to the State Department and to ICOM [the International Council of Museums], telling about this crime,” Mr. Hawass said. “We will [hold] a press conference … to offer to the international community all the evidence we have. After that I will take them to court.”

Mr. Hawass is as well-known for his flamboyant verbiage as for his fierceness in defending Egypt’s cultural property. Export of antiquities from Egypt stopped completely in 1983, when a law made them the property of the government. Asked whether Egyptian warehouses are now crowded with redundant objects — and whether the law should be modified to allow export of second-rate items — Mr. Hawass said no. “You can’t sell your heritage,” he said. “It’s like a lady selling herself for money.”