October 21, 2010

Security at Egypt’s Mahmoud Khalil Museum

Posted at 6:30 pm in Similar cases

I have long argued that the argument about museums outside the west being unable to look after artefacts securely is entirely disingenuous. Unfortunately institutions such as Cairo’s Mahmoud Khalil Museum make it a lot harder to persuade people that this is the case though, as they perpetuate the stereotype of mismanaged underfunded institutions where thieves can just walk in & help themselves to valuable works of art.

Current Intelligence

Cairo’s Thomas Crowne Affair

Vincent van Gogh’s 1887 painting Poppy Flowers (Vase with Flowers) was stolen from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in the Giza area of Cairo on Saturday. The roughly one-foot-square work, valued at $50 million, was cut from its frame after robbers borrowed a near-by sofa and used it as a makeshift ladder; not exactly the work of professionals. Shortly after news of the theft broke, Egypt’s culture minister, Farouk Hosni, issued a statement claiming that an Italian couple seen suspiciously“visiting a toilet” and then “rapidly leaving the premises” had been detained in connection with the crime. Alas, it turns out that the tale of international intrigue proved to be untrue, and Hosni retracted the statement a few hours later.

As the narrative of the theft continues to unfold it’s beginning to sound more and more like the plot to The Thomas Crowne Affair (the Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway version, of course). Not long after accusing the Italian tourists, the deputy culture minister, Muhsin Sha’lan, and four of the museum’s security guards were detained on suspicion of neglect and delinquency. Professional delinquency might be an understatement: the museum had an abysmal attendance of only ten people that day, none of the museum’s alarms were working, and only seven of the 43 surveillance cameras were functioning at the time of the robbery.

In the past few years, there seems to have been an increase in the number of thefts in the art world. Earlier this year, the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris lost five paintings valued at €100 million. In 2008, Switzerland was stunned by two consecutive thefts which saw the loss of six paintings worth upwards to $168 million. But Egypt in particular has had a long and difficult history with protecting the works of art owned by the state. The country’s eyebrow-raising theft history has many in the museum field speculating that it might not have a theft problem so much as a corrupt government problem.

In 2009, Cairo’s Mohamed Ali Pasha Museum, often referred to as Egypt’s Versailles Palace, was robbed of nine paintings depicting the 19th century ruler and his family. In 2000, Pharaonic artifacts were taken from the Egyptian Museum and smuggled into London via Switzerland. Five years earlier, thieves looted the vault of the Temple of Montu at Karnak, walking away with some 55 objects. Even this particular van Gogh painting had been stolen once before, in 1978, though authorities recovered it two years later in an undisclosed location in Kuwait.

Egypt’s culture ministry is perpetually between a rock and hard place – stuck between a population that would like to see many of the works destroyed and the multi-billion dollars the country generates yearly in cultural tourism. The Mahmoud Khalil Museum, with its impressive collection of French painting housed in a Haussmannesque mansion, is at the center of Egypt’s internal cultural strife. But beyond that, Egypt’s handling of its national treasures is somewhat suspect. Enter the secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass. An Egyptologist and Indian Jones devotee, Hawass has been criticized by western institutions for his mishandling of delicate objects for the sake of profit.

Certainly this latest theft will not aid Egypt’s campaign to pressure Western museums to return what it considers pilfered works. Institutions like the British Museum and Berlin’s Neues Museum have rebuffed the Egyptian culture ministry’s request claiming that the well-being of the objects would be compromised if they were returned. Cue Hawass, who reassuringly wrote in an e-mailed statement that Egypt plans to set up a security control room which would monitor all of its museums. I, for one, would prefer it if Hawass got himself a whip, a fedora and a sassy-blonde lounge singer and hunted down the evil-doers himself.

Stassa Edwards | DateAugust 25, 2010

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