Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The theft of the golden mask | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The theft of Egyptian antiquities not only concerns me, but Egypt as a whole. However, let me say that during the past seven years we have been able to return more than five thousand artifacts to Egypt, which were stolen or smuggled out of the country in various ways. Soon a book I have written about the theft of antiquities from Egypt will be published, and this book will deal with how such antiquities were smuggled out of the country, as well as how they were returned, following conflicts and deliberations with those who found themselves in possession of stolen artifacts.

What is important here is to stress that the thefts and break-ins in our museums and archaeological sites, during the recent difficult period in Egypt, will not stop the ambitious project which we started years ago, namely the project to restore Egypt’s stolen artifacts and antiquities by any and all legal means, ensuring that these return to Egypt. The thefts have been exploited by some parties, particularly foreign bodies and museums that still retain stolen Egyptian artifacts, in a campaign which claims that these artifacts would not be safe in Egypt. This is an insult, and nothing more than an opportunistic response to our calls for the return of our stolen and looted treasures!

The tale of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask is a vivid example of the conflict between those who claim that our stolen antiquities should remain abroad, and the broad range of archaeologists who call for these antiquities to be returned to their native Egypt. Dr. Mohammed Zakaria Ghoneim, may he rest in peace, discovered this beautiful mask in 1930 [at the Saqqara pyramids near Cairo]. It remained in storage until 1966, when it was on its way to the Egyptian Museum, where it was scheduled to be shipped to Japan to feature in an exhibition when it disappeared. Official records confirm that the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was in Egypt until at least 1966, and evidence suggests that it was stolen en route to the Egyptian museum. The mask never arrived at the museum, nor was it registered in the museum’s records, but the question remains: Who stole the mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer? And how did it leave Egypt?

It seems that this was the work of an organized international gang smuggling antiquities from Egypt, and one of its most prominent members was well known to the FBI and the Egyptian intelligence services. This thief was able to steal many artifacts from Egypt, and was heavily involved in the case known as the “great artifact robbery”. This thief stole the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask and sold it to the Saint Louis Art Museum in America. Once we learned of the mask’s presence in this museum, a special file was established to deal with stolen artifacts, and all evidence of them leaving Egypt illegally. These artifacts are recorded in state registers, and thus belong to Egypt under the protection of Egyptian laws, and international agreements, including the 1970 UNESCO convention!

Based on all of the above, a formal request was sent to the Saint Louis Art Museum in order to recover the mask, and later a formal request was sent to the US Congress and the St. Louis Senator. When we did not receive a positive response, we turned our attention to civil society, contacting school students in the city asking them not to visit the museum, because it was in possession of stolen Egyptian artifacts. We did not try to raise the issue in U.S. courts, given the high financial costs that are unfortunately associated with these types of issues. It is Egypt’s antiquities that are in most need of these funds, for their restoration and care.

After thinking long and hard, the file was sent to the Department of Homeland Security in the U.S., and they conducted a series of measures to get the mask and return it to Egypt. However, the museum quickly filed a lawsuit against the Department, to stop the process. The museum management claimed that Egypt had donated this mask to the late Zakaria Ghoneim, but these words are lies and cannot be believed.

Soon, we will send Egyptian archeologists to America to testify in this case, in order to ensure the return of this mask to Egypt after its long absence.

The story of stolen antiquities continues.