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Egyptian art returns from France

Following the earlier decision by the Louvre [1] to return various fresco fragments, the actual return of these objects has now taken place.

Agence France Presse [2]

France returns stolen Louvre relics to Egypt
(AFP) – 22 hours ago

PARIS — France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy handed his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak a stolen ancient relic on Monday, ending a row between France and Egypt over artefacts taken from a Luxor tomb.

“Thank you very much,” Mubarak said as Sarkozy presented the painted wall fragment to him, following a formal lunch at the Elysee presidential palace.

The small relic is one of five “steles” that were chipped off a wall painting in the ancient Egyptian tomb of Tetiky, dating back some 3,000 years to the Nile kingdom’s 18th dynasty.

Louvre curators purchased the artefacts in 2000 and 2003 and kept them in storage at the museum.

Egypt demanded the return of the stolen fragments in October and broke off relations with the Louvre. Afterwards, France agreed to hand back the works, which are from Luxor’s Valley of the Kings.

“France is particularly committed to fighting the illegal trafficking of works of art,” Sarkozy said, in a statement.

The other four artefacts were to be given to the Egyptian embassy in Paris during Mubarak’s visit to Paris, French officials said.

The French president emphasized that the Louvre museum had acted in good faith when it purchased the artefacts and said that doubts were only raised in November during archaeological work at the site.

Egypt had produced photographs from the mid-1970s showing the fragments in place on the tomb’s wall.

A 1972 UNESCO convention states that artefacts are the property of their country of origin and pieces smuggled out of a country must be returned.

Cairo’s antiquities department, which controls access to all of Egypt’s archaeological sites, had broken off ties with the Louvre and said they would be restored once the relics were returned.

Egypt is stepping up demands for the restitution of many relics including the Rosetta Stone on display in the British Museum and the bust of Queen Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues museum.

“Everything which was stolen from us should be given back,” said Zawi Hawass, the current head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, in January.

Museum curators purchased four of the five fragments in 2000 from the collection of French archaeologist Gaston Maspero and a fifth piece was bought in 2003 during a public sale at the Drouot auction house.

But Hawass had said that he believed the Paris museum bought the antiquities even though its curators knew they were stolen.

“The purchase of stolen steles is a sign that some museums are prepared to encourage the destruction and theft of Egyptian antiquities,” he said.

Egypt had put on hold a series of conferences organised with the museum and suspended work carried out by the Louvre on the Pharaonic necropolis of Saqqara, south of the capital Cairo.

Sarkozy said the restitution of the relics reflected the “quality of relations between the two countries and the excellent cooperation in the field of archaeology.”

In 2007, France returned hairs from an ancient pharaoh that were nearly sold on the Internet by a French postal worker whose father had acquired them during the scientific examination of the royal mummy 30 years previously.

The case prompted Egyptian authorities to bar foreign scientists from examining royal mummies.

Voice of America News [3]

France Returns Egyptian Art
Lisa Bryant | Paris
14 December 2009

During a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy handed back the last of five stolen Egyptian relics that ended up in a French museum. The handover closes only one chapter in an international dispute over the recovery of ancient artifacts.

At issue are 3,000-year-old relics taken from a wall painting of an ancient Egyptian tomb. The Louvre Museum in Paris had purchased the objects a few years ago, apparently believing they had been acquired legally. But Cairo’s antiquities department argued they had been stolen. In October, it cut off ties with the Louvre in protest.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy handed back the last of the relics to visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a luncheon meeting in Paris. But there are plenty of other antiquities disputes that remain unresolved, among them; Egyptian authorities want the British Museum to hand over the Rosetta Stone and a museum in Berlin to relinquish a bust of the ancient Egyptian queen, Nefertiti.

Greece wants the British Museum to return the so-called “Elgin Marbles,” which are sections of the Parthenon removed in the 19th century by a British aristocrat. Iraq has complained of antiquities looted from its Museum in Baghdad and during illegal excavations.

An official who deals with cultural property issues at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Edouard Planche, says the battle over antiquities involves many countries.

“Particularly the countries where there is a very rich architectural heritage,” said Edouard Planche. “So if it is Mesopotamia, Egypt, Latin American countries where you have a huge, pre-Colombian heritage. But also countries where there is a rich religious heritage, there is a huge problem of looting of churches in some countries of Latin America. And on the other side, all the countries where you have huge museums, huge collectors.”

Planche says a number of artifacts have been returned.

“There are a lot of cases resolved by bilateral discussions between the countries involved and this is a very good thing, to find a settlement of this issue on a bilateral cases,” he said.

But Planche says an unknown number of international disputes over artefacts remain unresolved, despite U.N. conventions over ownership and restitution. UNESCO is trying to mediate and establish rules for settling the most difficult cases.

France 24 [4]

15 December 2009
By Guillaume LOIRET / Hussein Emara (text)
The adventures of Egypt’s famous antiquities hunter in Paris

During Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s visit to Paris, France handed over five ancient Egyptian relics. But for Zahi Hawass, the flamboyant Egyptologist at the heart of the latest antiquities scrap, the mission is not yet over.

Gone are the days when young French writer André Malraux, who would go on to become France’s minister for culture, could chip off four sculptures from a Cambodian temple and ship them back to France. Almost a century later, the French government has officially returned five frescoed fragments from a Luxor tomb to Egypt, ending a row that had poisoned relations between Cairo and Paris.

The artefacts, the last of which was handed over to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, in Paris on Monday, are thought to belong to a more than 3,200-year-old tomb in the Valley of the Kings. They were illegally carried out of Egypt in the last century, before the Louvre museum in Paris acquired them in 2000 and 2003.

Enter the antiquities hunter

The fragments’ return home is largely the work of a 62-year-old Egyptian, Zahi Hawass, who has spent the better part of the past decade scouring the world on the hunt for relics from the Pharaoh’s age. “This news fills me with joy. I have sent a delegation from the Cairo museum to fetch them in Paris,” he told FRANCE 24.com in a phone interview from Cairo.

A controversial figure, Hawass has been at the helm of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities since 2002. As such, he alone can grant archaeologists the permits required to carry out excavations in his country.

A few years back he embarked on a mission to repatriate some of the artefacts from Ancient Egypt that are currently held in Western museums. On his website, Hawass boasts of having recovered some 5,000 works of art that had been disseminated across the world. To lay his hands on the Louvre’s relics, he went so far as to withdraw Egypt’s collaboration with the landmark Parisian museum.

In a statement released on Monday, Sarkozy said France was “committed to fighting the illegal trafficking of works of art”. But in an interview with FRANCE 24.com, a source at the French culture ministry, who wished to remain anonymous, said Hawass’s move to withdraw Egyptian collaboration with the Louvre was tantamount to blackmail.

He also noted that France was careful to point out that it was handing over – and not returning – the fragments. “A return would have implied a theft, whereas the Louvre bought the fragments in good faith – even though they had initially been taken out of Egypt illegally,” he noted.

Recovering Egypt’s finest art

Hawass has recently repeated his demand for the British Museum to return the famous Rosetta Stone, which helped French scientist Jean-François Champollion decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics more than two centuries ago.

Cairo’s famous antiquities hunter has also lobbied for the return of a 3,500-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti, wife of the famous Pharaoh Akhenaten, on show at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Hawass is set to discuss the matter with a representative of the Neues in Cairo later this month. “Negotiations with Germany have only just begun,” he said.

Nor will the Louvre’s recent gesture of goodwill spare it from future harassment. For Hawass, the return of the frescoes is just the beginning. “We will officially request the return of six major works currently in France, including the famous Dendera zodiac [deemed one of Ancient Egypt’s most valuable objects and also housed in the Louvre],” he told FRANCE 24.com.

Hawass’s persistent demands have irritated some officials in Paris. “There was a time when he even wanted the obelisk on Place de la Concorde [in Paris]! We cannot empty all of France’s museums just to please him,” said the source at the French culture ministry. Concerning the Dendera zodiac, he added, “We are protected by the UNESCO convention [an international text, signed in 1972, that details the rules governing ownership of artworks acquired through fraud].”

The hidden agenda

Hawass has more than one trick up his sleeve. In a bid to pile the pressure on Paris, London and Berlin, he has announced plans to host an international conference on the return of artworks to their rightful owners some time next year. “The idea,” he said, “is to raise awareness of the issue and draw up a list in which each country can name the antiquities it wants back.” Italy and Greece will no doubt be invited.

Critics say the archeologist’s zeal conceals a hidden agenda, with some suggesting he has set his eyes on the post of culture minister. But one thing is certain: Hawass is hoping the future Grand Egyptian Museum, which is set to open on the Giza plateau between 2011 and 2012, will house the most beautiful works of art from Ancient Egypt – including those that are now abroad.