Pyramid Scheme: What’s Next for Egypt’s Artifacts?

Egypt’s antiquities are among the most adored in the world. How will the country’s new bosses supply them?

Amenemhat II © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In late January, during the protests that eventually led to the revolution in Egypt, the news broke that looters had raided the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, current home to some of the most impressive artifacts of early human history. The thieves made off with 18 objects and The Huffington Post, practicing its own brand of excavation, lovingly brushed away the dirt covering the sexiest part of the story and placed it in the headline: “Egypt Looters Rip Heads Off 2 Mummies at Famed Cairo Museum.”

As they were dead, the mummies were ultimately O.K., but the news hinted at a question that would become increasingly pertinent in the coming months: what were the implications of the revolution for those who work with Egyptian artifacts the U.S.?

In the subsequent months, we’ve learned more about the provisional government’s attitude toward its cultural artifacts. The Supreme Council of Antiquities (S.C.A.), the organization responsible for handling such matters, was downgraded from a cabinet ministry. Its prominent and outspoken head, Dr. Zahi Hawass—famous for his Indiana Jones fedora and soapbox passion for repatriation—said in March that he would step down. The impending departure of Dr. Hawass, the face of modern Egyptian archaeology, indicates a shift in the way Egypt will handle its artifacts. Not much is known about Mohamed Abdel Fattah, the man appointed his successor just this week, and the question remains as to how Dr. Hawass’s successor will navigate the tricky role of being both a goodwill ambassador and a staunch nationalist faced with colleagues who own works that, spiritually, still belong to his country.


To understand the dual role assumed by anyone regulating Egyptian artifacts, it may be useful to understand how we arrived here. Throughout the 20th century, Egypt battled rampant smuggling. The export of Egyptian artifacts was essentially banned by a UNESCO treaty in 1970, and those restrictions were tightened with a domestic statute in 1983. Newly discovered artifacts still leave the country on loan, but the Egyptian government now owns anything discovered in its soil, even on digs sponsored by American institutions like the Met.

While that might seem logical, it was far from the case in the past. Previously, Egypt, like most other countries with a wealth of antiquities, used a system known as partage. After selecting the most culturally significant artifacts for the government, the parties representing the S.C.A. and the museum would split anything left over, 50-50.

“After everything is found at the end of the season,” said Oscar Muscarella, archaeologist and senior Met researcher, “the archeologist and the local representative would try to make two separate piles where you lay out all the materials and then you flip a coin. Heads you get one side, tails you get the other.”

Many museums and universities still sponsor digs in Egypt, for research and conservation purposes—though it’s hard to imagine that, politically, these digs don’t also help to secure loans from the government. The digs are monitored by the S.C.A., which interacts closely with American cultural institutions, broadly represented in the country by an organization called the American Research Center in Egypt (A.R.C.E.). The relationship is close enough that both parties are aware of minor bureaucratic shifts and when the S.C.A. board that approves dig permits missed a meeting immediately following the revolution, some American organizations became nervous. Emily Teeter, president of the A.R.C.E., advised some intending to work in Egypt to apply for other work, like conservation, in addition to active fieldwork, in case their fieldwork permits were, for whatever reason, not approved.

“Archaeology is a destructive process and if you’re not conserving, it’s better to leave it not dug up,” Dr. Teeter told The Observer, adding that conservation has become a growing part of their work anyway.


When it comes to digs, American museums, in the aftermath of the recent changes in Egypt, seem to be prepared for the worst without being entirely certain about what’s going on in the country. The Observer was unable to obtain any comment from a cultural representative of Egypt despite attempts to contact several outposts in this country, two of which featured AOL email addresses and one whose three listed phone numbers seemed to work earlier this month but now yield a persistent busy signal in the place of a reply.

“The really big problem for the antiquities service is that it is almost entirely funded by tourist dollars,” said Ed Bleiberg, the Egypt curator for the Brooklyn museum, which hosts extensive digs in the country. “That money goes to support the S.C.A. and allows for excavations in Egypt, and so because tourism has fallen off so much since the end of January, the S.C.A.’s budget is endangered. Our hope is that will return to normal in near future.”

The previous government seemed to believe that tourism in Egypt was soon going to be bigger than ever. In 2012, the country will open its $550 million Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, presumably a major motivator in Dr. Hawass’s very public attempts to repatriate big-ticket artifacts. On his blog, Dr. Hawass has a wish list of major Egyptian artifacts that he’d like to see returned to the country, among them the Rosetta Stone. If it seems like he’s aiming high, he has been successful in the past—the Met recently returned 19 items taken from King Tut’s tomb.

But Dr. Hawass’s reputation in these matters is that his bark is a bit outsize vis-à-vis his bite. Dr. Teeter said that several institutions that Dr. Hawass had railed against publicly had never received any sort of official follow-up from the government. And the publicity has been a little too effective. Visitors regularly walk into her own institution, the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago, and inform her that she really should return her artifacts to Egypt, despite the fact that the museum stopped acquiring Egyptian artifacts in 1930.

“As far as Hawass goes, he’s a brilliant, complex guy, but a megalomaniac and a solipsist,” said Dr. Muscarella, who is extremely sympathetic to his position and has frequently accused his own institution of “plunder.” “[Hawass is] someone who just opens his mouth and causes harm to his own cause, because I think his basic cause is to protect Egyptian antiquities, but he goes about it in a way where he just throws things out and is compromising his own position, to be quite frank.”

“If they replace him they may have to get someone calmer,” he added.

This isn’t to say that Dr. Hawass’s role is unnecessary. A study by David Gill, an archaeologist at Swansea University in Wales, found that 95 percent of the Egyptian antiquities sold at Sotheby’s between 1998 and 2008 could not be traced back to where they’d been excavated. That doesn’t mean that they were smuggled, but it points to the murkiness involved in determining provenance, even for a house with high standards like Sotheby’s. Because of the 1983 law, auction catalogues tend to nonchalantly dwell on this time period for Egyptian artifacts (e.g., “Purchased in Berlin in 1968,” which could roughly be translated to: “Everything’s just fine here, officer!”).

Dr. Hawass’s role, outsize though it may be, was also crucial because of another recent development in the world of Egyptian artifacts—a growth in demand for pieces on the private market. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have seen increased interest in antiquities across the board, and just this past December, an Egyptian limestone statue from around 1200 B.C.E.—and, later, an estate with stellar province—went for $1.31 million, though its high estimate was only $300,000.

Part of this has to do with the fact that since 1983, the supply has been effectively cut off, but Sam Merrin, owner of the Merrin Gallery in midtown, said much of this has had to do with the cash-flush art market at large.

“A lot of these people buy contemporary art and comparatively antiquities are still relatively inexpensive,” Mr. Merrin said. “They’re used to shelling out $20 million dollars, $40 million dollars, and they look at antiquities and they say, ‘Wow this really is undervalued.’”

The new competition means that museums are acquiring less and less. That’s certainly been the case at the Brooklyn Museum, which boasts one of the top Egyptian collections in the country, along with the Met and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

“It’s become so difficult to acquire legally and ethically,” Dr. Bleiberg said. “We do follow the market, but we pretty much stay away from acquisitions. It’s become very expensive.”


The twin factors of Egypt’s attempting to reclaim its cultural heritage and the newly invigorated market means that, looking ahead, Egyptian artifacts newly displayed in this country will most likely originate from Egypt. (This isn’t the only way they’ll come here, of course—the Met just received a ten-foot statue of Amenemhat II from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.) This doesn’t mean that artifacts will cease to cycle in and out of museums here, but it does make things slightly more complicated. Any museum hosting an artifact from Egypt, for example, has to put up a representative from the S.C.A. to accompany the piece or exhibition.

But there’s also a possibility that Egyptian artifacts will be available to a larger audience than ever before. The previous Egyptian government embraced a trend increasingly common to many museums and used traveling exhibitions as a way of ensuring that as many people see their works as possible. Kathryn Keane, director of Traveling Exhibitions for National Geographic, said that over the past six years her touring King Tut exhibit—featuring exclusively Egypt-owned artifacts—has been seen by seven and a half million people worldwide.

“It’s a pretty successful model so far,” Ms. Keane said, adding that Dr. Hawass, who holds the title Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic, was “instrumental” in establishing it. “We anticipate the government of Egypt will continue to want to share its culture because I know it’s a priority for them.”

With the government in such a transitional stage, many of the changes ahead in the relationship between the S.C.A. and our city’s institutions are very much up in the air, but this may be the takeaway. Egypt’s artifacts are now more than ever before firmly in the control of the S.C.A. and that organization is well positioned to share them, on its own terms.

And in the wake of this nationalistic revolution, the odds are good that the repatriation efforts will continue, with or without Dr. Hawass. Dr. Teeter pointed out that the S.C.A. is currently reorganizing itself with the knowledge that there’s a long list of objects already under disputed ownership.

“I can’t imagine they’re not going to pursue some of these cases that are still open,” Dr. Teeter said.

  Pyramid Scheme: What’s Next for Egypt’s Artifacts?