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Damage Control: Zahi Hawass’ and American Preservationists’ Statements

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Zahi Hawass, secretary general, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities

In a case of bad timing, the Egyptian government announced last Monday that antiquities chief Zahi Hawass had sent a letter to Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Germany, renewing his demand for the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues Museum. (Germany promptly replied that the request hadn’t been made through proper government channels.)

Four days later, on Friday, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was looted.

This immediately brought to mind a comment made to me three years ago by Richard Leventhal, director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania, and an ardent advocate of repatriation. Over lunch during my visit to the university, where I had been invited to give a couple of talks on cultural property issues, Leventhal mentioned to me that when he discusses with his students issues to be pondered in repatriation claims, one important consideration is whether returned objects will be properly cared for if returned to countries of origins.

Leventhal is one of the signatories to a statement on the Egyptian crisis issued today by six American organizations involved in cultural property issues. It calls on Egyptian authorities “to exercise their responsibilities to protect their country’s irreplaceable cultural heritage.”

The statement continues:

At the same time, we call on United States and European law enforcement agencies to be on the alert over the next several months for the possible appearance of looted Egyptian antiquities at their borders.

Meanwhile, in Cairo on Sunday, Hawass issued on his website a statement on The Situation in Egyptian Antiquities Today, in which he tries to cast the looting of museums (which, as he notes, has spread to other cities) in the least damaging light. Hawass at first had misleadingly claimed that there had been no damage to the cases holding the King Tutankhamun artifacts, only to later acknowledge (in the face of published pictorial evidence) that one Tut case had indeed been compromised.

In his Sunday statement, Hawass declared:

What is really beautiful is that not all Egyptians were involved in the looting of the museum. A very small number of people tried to break, steal and rob. Sadly, one criminal voice is louder than one hundred voices of peace. The Egyptian people are calling for freedom, not destruction….

Due to the circumstances, this behavior is not surprising; criminals and people without a conscience will rob their own country. If the lights went off in New York City, or London, even if only for an hour, criminal behavior will occur. I am very proud that Egyptians want to stop these criminals to protect Egypt and its heritage.

What happened in Cairo is not analogous to any “criminal behavior” we’ve seen in modern times in New York or London, where the police have never abandoned the streets to mobs, and looters have not targeted cultural treasures in museums.

My reaction to Leventhal’s scruples at the time was that if something has truly been “stolen” (and he and I do have some differences on what “stolen” should mean in a cultural-property context), we don’t ask what the rightful owner plans to do with the property; we give it back.

But the visceral impact of seeing the images of the looted Egyptian museum, one of the world’s greatest cultural treasuries, gave me pause and made me wonder if Leventhal could be right in his preservation-related criterion for repatriation.

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