Saturday, May 1, 2010
Last week Egypt's Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Culture, hosted the first international conference aimed at the repatriation of cultural heritage artifacts in Cairo. Twenty-two nations in all were present, representing efforts as diverse as China, Mexico, Cyprus, Italy, India, Peru and South Korea. Elena Korka, who is in charge of protecting Greece's cultural heritage, explained, “This conference shows the importance many countries place in joining forces.”
One main goal of this conference is to call on UNESCO to amend the 1970 convention banning the export or ownership of stolen antiquities acquired after that date. The convention prohibits the illicit import, export and sale of cultural property, but states there will be no "retroactive" measure for artifacts acquired before the convention was signed.
The rather impolitic but typically effective Hawass points to his recent success recovering as many as 5,000 smuggled and looted antiquities for Egypt as reassurance of his method's effectiveness. One of his major victories came in response to the Louvre's refusal to return fragments of a fresco illegally removed from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Last October, Hawass cut all ties with the Louvre and barred them from their excavations at Saqqara. The French officials promptly reversed their position and by December, after the artifacts were returned, ties and permissions were restored. And then this March he secured the return of a 3,000 year old Pharoanic coffin that had been smuggled out of Egypt around 1884. It had been seized by US customs officials at the Port of Miami who discovered it among agricultural goods from a Spanish dealer who had no documentation of ownership.
Hawass hopes that through combined efforts they can achieve what these countries have failed to in the past. "Greece was fighting alone, and Italy was fighting alone, now for the first time we are united. We will fight together," said Hawass. "But I will tell you: some of us will make the life of those museums that have our artifacts miserable."
Out of these talks, nations are coming forward with a 'wish-list' of artifacts that they want repatriated, including the bust of Nefertiti from the Berlin Museum, Apollo at Cyrene from the British Museum, and the Machu Picchu Collection from Yale's Peabody Museum. While optimistic, several members of the conference are realistic in their goals. “If countries like ours — India, China, Iraq — demand for return [of antiquities],” said Dr. Gautam Sengupta, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, “most museums worldwide would close.”
In the weeks following this post we'll highlight the history, provenance and disputes concerning the possession of some of these wish-list artifacts.
Nations in Attendance