Interview: Egypt keen to retrieve smuggled ancient artifacts: official

CAIRO, April 27 (Xinhua) — Egypt has retrieved hundreds of ancient artifacts from the United States and Europe this week, which is part of an effort to bring back more of its stolen and smuggled relics around the world, an Egyptian official said on Sunday.

“The ministry of antiquities is saving no effort to preserve Egypt’s heritage and return stolen items,” Mahmoud al-Halwagy, director manager of the Egyptian Museum, told Xinhua.

On Saturday, a collection of 240 ancient Egyptian artifacts that were illegally smuggled out of the country arrived in Cairo from France.

The United States also handed back 134 artifacts to the Egyptian authorities on Friday after the Egyptian ministry of antiquities proved they had been stolen from the North African country.

Among the pieces retrieved are colored wooden coffins of a woman from the 26th Dynasty, four wooden statues of birds representing the spirit in the ancient Egyptian culture, statues dating back to the Third Intermediate Period and a plate dating back to the Modern State era.

“The ministry of antiquities follows all the museums and artifacts auctions abroad to spot the Egyptian pieces and then we start to investigate if these relics are stolen and smuggled or just owned legally by these museums and auctions,” al-Halwagy said.

The official noted that the government mainly relies on the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which is the first international instrument dedicated to the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property.

“Egypt has also recently signed agreements with several countries which allow Egypt to retrieve stolen artifacts,” he said. “These agreements oblige other courtiers to confiscate every stolen single ancient object at airports and seaports customs, auctions and sometimes well-known museums.”

It may take some time to repatriate confiscated relics in other countries because of the legal procedures, he said.

He said that the ministry of antiquities has been doing a “great” job in returning stolen ancient items from different countries, affirming that nearly 7000 relics have been retrieved in the recent six years.

The official also said that the number of the stolen and smuggled artifacts is large, adding that “the ministry does not have an exact number of the pieces shown or sold in other countries.”

“We have spotted hundreds of items in many countries and we investigate if these items are stolen or the owners have papers that prove their ownership, if they cannot prove this, we start our legal, and sometimes political, procedures with local governments to retrieve the artifacts,” he revealed.

The official stressed that the ministry is working hard with other state institutions, like the army and the police, to prevent the theft and smuggling of Egypt’s ancient treasure.

“Most of the relics smuggled out of Egypt are not stolen,” he said. “But there are groups of antiquities smugglers who make excavations across the country to uncover underground artifacts.”

This takes place in remote areas and in privately owned lands where the government cannot monitor, he added.

Al-Halwagy revealed that there are organized mafias, which pay millions of U.S. dollars to buy and smuggle stolen or illicit ancient antiquities.

Governments believe that thefts, illicit digging of archaeological sites, illegal import and export and trafficking on the Internet of cultural property pose major threats to the preservation and protection of the cultural heritage of humanity.

Among the strategies the ministry is following to fight the theft and smuggling of antiquities, said al-Halwagy, is an education program through which the ministry is telling school children and ordinary people of the high value of ancient antiquities and how to preserve them.

“This program is making a progress because our kids are positively responding to the idea that our antiquities are of great human value,” he said.

However, these are not enough to put an end to the theft, smuggling and selling of the Egyptian artifacts as thousands of Egypt’s stolen antiquities flood the global black markets, auction houses and museums.

Major archaeological sites have been the target for theft and prowling since the 2011 uprising that ousted Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak.