Weekly spotlight on state culture: Looted artifacts return to Egypt

It has been a good week for the Ministry of State of Antiquities. In addition to the discovery by a joint Swiss-Egyptian archaeological mission of 18th-dynasty royal mummies in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, several Egyptian artifacts that had been stolen and smuggled out of the country over the past few years are set to return.

Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim announced on Monday that three rare artifacts intercepted by German customs officials in 2009 would return on Saturday. The stolen objects, found on a truck heading to Belgium, consist of a miniature obelisk from 2300 BC, part of a shrine from 1300 BC, and a family monument from around 600 BC. The items are believed to have been dug up from the vicinity of the Saqqara archeological site close to the Egyptian capital.

The Ministry of Antiquities has been working closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to retrieve smuggled artifacts, negotiating with countries in Europe and the Gulf, as well as the US, which have both significant market for Egyptian heritage objects and a general demand that authorities cooperate to detect stolen objects and enforce stricter laws on the illegal trade of antiquities.

In February 2012, the Egyptian authorities and the International Council of Museums, an organization that fosters cooperation among museums worldwide and seeks to protect the world’s natural and cultural heritage, announced the Emergency Red List of Egyptian Cultural Objects at Risk. This list, which is publicized around the world, and particularly aimed at custom officers at airports, highlights the types of artifacts most exposed to theft such as statues, vessels, textiles and manuscripts from different historic eras rather than listing specific objects.

The still weak security presence around heritage sites and the better organization of local artifact traders, however, means that more solid plans need to be drawn up, as Egyptologist and American University in Cairo Professor Salima Ikram wrote in The Epoch Times on Tuesday. The rising costs of living, she explains, are another major incentive for local communities to cooperate with illicit traders in digging up archaeological sites.

But until the security situation is resolved, the Antiquities Ministry is moving ahead with its efforts in working with the international community.

According to the MENA state news agency, this past week it has managed to recover 10 artifacts stolen from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo when it came under attack amid the mass protests of January 2011. The objects, which include a gilded wooden Tutankhamun statue, a stone Tutankhamun statue and two statues of Queen Nefertiti’s children, were found in the US and Belgium.

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