The day before Egypt's revolution began, the nation's then-antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, demanded that Berlin's Neues Museum hand over its bust of Queen Nefertiti. Three weeks earlier, Hawass warned New York that he'd try to take back an obelisk in Central Park unless the city took better care of it.
Then came the revolution, when riots raged in front of Cairo's Egyptian Museum. On the night of Jan. 28 thieves broke in, with at least one descending into the Victorian-era building through a skylight. The looters made off with 18 objects, including statues of ancient-world celebrities King Tutankhamun and Nefertiti.
Some in the art world have seized on the chaos to oppose Egypt's demand for the return of its antiquities and to question the idea that ancient artworks and artifacts should be concentrated in their countries of origin (Italy and Greece are also seeking the return of national artworks). "The incidents during the Egyptian revolution could be taken as basis for a change of discussion," the Cologne (Germany)-based International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art said through its spokeswoman, Ursula Kampmann. "It comes to the question, What is the best way to protect our world's cultural heritage?"
Plenty of archaeologists support the repatriation claims of Egypt and other countries. The renewed debate over repatriation is a smoke screen for art dealers, collectors, and curators who want to turn a blind eye to the illicit trade, says David Gill, who teaches ancient history at Swansea University in Wales and runs the Looting Matters blog. The black market in looted art is worth as much as $6.3 billion a year, according to Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based advocacy group that promotes transparency in international finance. Over the decades the illegal sale of antiquities has benefited museums and private collectors throughout the West, says Gill.
Hawass, who said on Mar. 3 that he was resigning in part to protest the pillaging of archaeological sites since the revolution, is livid that advocates for collectors and museums are using the recent upheaval to advance their position, especially since Egyptians tried to protect their museum by forming a human chain around it after police retreated. "Arguments against repatriation because of the current situation in Egypt are completely wrong," Hawass says. "If the police left the streets of New York City, London, or Tokyo, criminals of those cities would smash the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, or any other museum in those cities."
One high-profile return is hanging in the balance, at least temporarily. In six months the Metropolitan Museum of Art is scheduled to repatriate 19 objects from Tutankhamun's tomb, including a three-quarter-inch bronze dog and a sphinx-shaped lapis lazuli ornament from a bracelet. The museum's own research proved that the objects were improperly exported after passing through the family and estate of Howard Carter, the archaeologist who opened King Tut's tomb in 1922.
Met Director Thomas Campbell says that while the museum has already granted Egypt title to the artifacts, the security situation complicates their return. "Obviously we're not sending them back if things break down again, and they wouldn't want them back," Campbell says. "We'll work with our Egyptian colleagues to return the objects in due course, as and when they feel ready to receive them." Hawass says he expects the museum will be able to return the artifacts safely and on schedule.
The Met, which conducts its own expeditions in Egypt, has itself been a victim of the looting. Twice since the revolution thieves have raided the Met's storage facility in Dahshur, about 40 kilometers south of Cairo, overpowering and tying up the guards. More than 20 Egyptian sites have fallen prey to thievery. Looters made off with inscribed blocks from tombs in Saqqara and Abusir on Cairo's outskirts, while illicit excavators dug trenches as deep as five meters at Abydos, a temple site in southern Egypt, in their search for ancient objects.
Recently nations such as Italy and Greece had used patrimony laws and media pressure to force the return of hundreds of objects. The Cairo looting provides a way to push back, says William Pearlstein, a lawyer in New York who has represented dealers' associations and collectors in the U.S. and U.K. "My clients will have an easier time against retention laws," he says.
Western collectors and curators may gain further advantage with the departure of Hawass, who cemented his celebrity by hounding museums for artifacts. "I did fight antiquities robbery everywhere," he says. "I'm sure all museums will be happy now that I'm stepping down."
The bottom line: Recent looting in Egypt strengthens the resolve of curators who question the wisdom of returning artifacts to their countries of origin.