Egypt teams up with 25 nations in mission to retrieve antiquities, including Rosetta Stone

By Hadeel Al-shalchi, AP
Thursday, April 8, 2010

Egypt teams with 25 nations to return antiquities

CAIRO — Egypt’s antiquities chief has teamed up with 25 countries to press their campaigns to retrieve antiquities that were stolen and even those given as gifts, warning museums on Thursday that he would “make their lives miserable” if they refused his demands.

Zahi Hawass announced the expanded campaign at a news conference with officials from the U.S., Greece and Italy. By joining forces with other nations, he aims to add weight to an escalating campaign that even saw Egypt temporarily severing ties with the Louvre last year.

“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.”

Chief among the items Egypt wants back is the bust of Nefertiti, which is at Berlin’s Egyptian Museum. Egypt says it was shipped out of the country in 1913 on the basis of fraudulent papers.

Egypt has also been seeking the Rosetta Stone, the slab of basalt with an inscription that was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was taken out of Egypt in 1799 during French colonial rule and is now at the British Museum in London.

Hawass said a statue of Ramses from the Turin Museum in Italy was also on his “wish list.”

He did not outline a specific strategy for retrieving the items. He said, however, that he was not threatening to cut ties with more museums refusing to return artifacts, as he did in the fight with the Louvre.

Egypt is after items that it asserts were stolen and items that were once given as gifts, Hawass said.

Since becoming antiquities head in 2002, Hawass has recovered 5,000 artifacts, he says.

In one of the most acrimonious fights, Hawass has repeatedly requested the return of a 3,200-year-old golden mask of a noblewoman from the St. Louis Art Museum and has since cut ties with the museum and called on people to boycott its collection.

And in October 2009, Hawass cut ties with the Louvre, saying the museum had refused to return fragments illegally chipped from a tomb. Egypt suspended the Louvre’s excavation in the massive necropolis of Saqqara, near Cairo. French officials quickly agreed to hand over the fragments and ties were restored.

The British Museum said it had not received an official request for the permanent return of the Rosetta Stone, but that it was considering a request from Hawass for a short-term loan of the stone for the opening of the new museum in Giza in 2012 or 2013.

The American officials at Thursday’s announcement in Cairo wanted to signal they recognized the U.S. is a major market for stolen relics, said Tonya Fox of the U.S. delegation.

In March, a 3,000-year-old wooden sarcophagus confiscated at the Miami airport was returned to Egypt. Other items are still held in New York including wooden coffins, pottery and ancient art pieces.

Other countries represented at the meeting said they had wish lists of their own.

Greece said it wants the Parthenon marbles back from the British Museum, Libya wants the Apollo at Cyrene back from the British Museum, and Peru is in talks to retrieve the Machu Picchu collection that was loaned and remains in the Peabody Museum in Yale University.

The process of repatriating cultural heritage is complicated by inadequate local and international laws and many museums maintain they acquire their artifacts legally and in a transparent manner.

Determining whether an artifact has even been stolen requires delicate cooperation between government, law enforcement, museums and antiquities dealers. And frequently, there are gaps in the historical records.

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