The Security of Art in Egypt

by Haley Bice 6 months ago in investigation


The Security of Art in Egypt
Image (c) Wikimedia

An elite group of art thieves breaking into an Egyptian museum is a romanticized notion that movies and works of fiction have speculated about for what seems like centuries. For today’s museums, however, protecting ever-popular ancient works of art is a huge and costly reality. The need to protect artifacts from theft, while still allowing patrons to see and learn from these works, is a complicated science. Security on all popular works of art is important, but it is specifically important for ancient works, which are subject to natural erosion and destruction over time as well as destruction due to crime.

For centuries, robbers have been looting in the ancient tombs of Egypt. So much so, that most of the tombs archaeologists have inspected have been found destroyed by looters long gone. Even during the time of ancient Egypt looters were rampant, which is why, during the middle kingdom of Egypt, Egyptians began to build tombs in the sides of hills rather than in pyramids. The Pyramids, while impressive because of their size, were also big targets for thieves because of their prominence. (Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael W. Cothren 49) It is also important to say something about the beginning of archaeology removing works from historical context.

The looting of Egypt's antiquities dates back to ancient times--there are now more standing obelisks in Rome than there are in Egypt. With the Napoleonic Expedition of 1799 and the subsequent publication of its massive Déscription de l'Égypte, Western fascination with ancient Egypt increased exponentially; along with this came a surge in antiquities collecting. (Oeters 2)

Not only does looting remove works from their locations, eliminating much of their historical value, it has also created a huge issue: moving ancient works can be destructive. Just as a moving company may break a mirror in the process of moving objects from homes, people moving artwork can also have lasting and pricey effects. As an example,

Tutankhamun's commander-in-chief, Horemheb, who later became pharaoh, was eventually buried in the Valley of the Kings. However, he had earlier built a tomb at Saqqara, and his wife Mutnodjmet was buried there. In 1975, the Anglo-Dutch team working at Saqqara re-discovered this tomb, which had been looted by tomb robbers in the early 19th century.

During their clearance of the tomb's central offering chapel, the archaeologists found a beautiful pair statue of Horemheb and his wife (probably his first wife, Amenia). The head of Horemheb was missing at the time of discovery, but his wife's figure was complete. Sometime after its discovery, thieves sawed off and stole her head and upper torso. The remainder of the statue is now on display in the Luxor Museum of Egyptian Art. (Oeters 3)

Sometimes, ancient works survive the test of time and museums rediscover them. Most of the time, however, if an art piece is not approved by the Egyptian government, it was looted and given to collectors or even museums illegally.

Despite [the] laws, stolen treasures continue to find their way into collections around the world, taken or traded illegally and without regard for the historical insights they might offer. Egypt's antiquities continue to suffer immeasurably at the hands of people who seek to exploit the past for their own gain. (Oeters 2)

Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt greatly affected the ancient pieces located there. While he is credited with beginning archaeology, what the people of the 1700s considered archaeology is very different from today’s use of the word.

Napoleon’s scholars and engineers are remembered most as men who helped found archaeology as a science, their meticulous way of looking at ancient sites becoming the model for future Egyptologists. Unlike modern archaeologists, though, the French scholars did not excavate… Napoleon appreciated the emotional power of the ancient pyramids, obelisks, and temples, though without taking much interest in their historical meaning. (Burleigh, 168-170)

He used the works of ancient Egypt for propaganda, without much interest in their value historically, thus removing much of the context of the works he basically looted and allowing for future ‘archaeologists’ to do the same. Today we would call these people illegal collectors of ancient arts rather than discoverers of these works.

Ancient looting is not the only concern about Egyptian artwork, however. As was previously mentioned, the Egyptian government has been asking for the return of many ancient works of art, which are currently in the collection of museums. Most of these works have been in the museums for years, but with new technologies for authenticating, the government believes the museums have acquired their ancient artwork illegally. For example, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (the SCA) has made this and many other requests to museums asking for the return of works. They say on their website,

In 1998, the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) purchased [a] mask from Phoenix Ancient Art (owned by the Abouttam brothers, who have since been convicted on smuggling charges and sentenced to jail time in Egypt) for nearly half a million dollars. The provenance provided to SLAM with the mask is poorly documented and unconvincing… the SCA has clear documentation that the mask was in Egypt until at least 1966. Other parts of the alleged provenance can also be shown to be faulty, and it is the contention of the SCA that SLAM did not carry out due diligence before purchasing the mask. The mask is clearly stolen property, and must be returned to Egypt. (Oeters, 1)

MSNBC had this to say about the request,

In one of the most acrimonious fights [for artwork], Hawass [Egypt's antiquities chief] has repeatedly requested the return of a 3,200-year-old golden mask of a noblewoman from the St. Louis Art Museum and has since cut ties with the museum and called on people to boycott its collection. (Al-Shalchi, 1)

A more recent example involves an even more famous museum,

[In] October 2009, Hawass cut ties with the Louvre, saying the museum had refused to return fragments illegally chipped from a tomb. Egypt suspended the Louvre's excavation in the massive necropolis of Saqqara, near Cairo. French officials quickly agreed to hand over the fragments and ties were restored. (Al-Shalchi, 1)

It is up to the countries involved to work out an agreement to either return or keep pieces that a government believes is stolen, but it is a delicate process,

The process of repatriating cultural heritage is complicated by inadequate local and international laws and many museums maintain they acquire their artifacts legally and in a transparent manner. Determining whether an artifact has even been stolen requires delicate cooperation between government, law enforcement, museums and antiquities dealers. And frequently, there are gaps in the historical records. (Al-Shalchi 1)

The looting of ancient works can be disastrous to the artwork, the people ‘owning’ pieces illegally, and museums across the globe. One other aspect can be dangerous to ancient Egyptian pieces as well, and that is the security provided (or lack thereof) at museums located in Egypt.

At the center of the Square, in the center of Cairo, sits the museum. It is arguably the finest repository of ancient treasures in the world, save those removed by others, both legally and illegally (think Napoleon). This single museum represents the finest antiquities from Egypt's Pharaonic past. It chronicles a civilization that remains the pinnacle of ancient learning, sophistication, art and creativity. Protection of the treasures here and throughout the country is a matter of great Egyptian national pride and international concern. (Glock, 1)

It is, of course, important to a museum to protect their most popular pieces and to reassure visitors of this protection. However, recent events in Egypt’s history have affected the security of their museums.

Security for Egypt's treasures is under scrutiny after the Aug. 21 theft of a van Gogh painting from[a] museum in Cairo revealed some alarming gaps, and the minister of culture told a newspaper he lies awake at night, fearing for the safety of the country's relics. Shortly after van Gogh's 1887 "Poppy Flowers" was stolen from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum, officials discovered that no alarms were working, and only seven of 43 cameras were operating. That made it very easy for whoever took the painting, said Ton Cremers, director of the Netherlands-based Museum Security Network, which keeps tabs on the protection of art around the world. (Bailey, 1)

This was even after a riot only eight years prior, resulting in the damaging and theft of many pieces in the Egyptian Museum at Giza,

In 2002, thieves looted the Cairo University Museum/Magazine in Ma'adi. An inventory done immediately after the theft counted 370 objects missing, mostly Predynastic vessels. The remaining objects were moved to another SCA magazine, and the museum was closed. With the assistance of a number of scholars and institutions, including the US Department of Homeland Security, four groups of these Ma'adi objects have been recovered. The first group to be returned had been offered for sale by Bonham's auction house on October 28, 2004. Curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York spotted them and alerted the SCA. These were returned to the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, on March 15, 2005. Another single vessel was recovered, with the assistance of the US Department of Homeland Security, from Christie's auction house in London. The US Department of Homeland Security [seized] another 79 of the stolen objects, which were in the possession of various auction houses. They had been consigned to these houses by Edward “Dutch” Johnson, a US army pilot who smuggled at least 100 of the artifacts out of Egypt. Mr. Johnson was convicted and sentenced in US court for smuggling. The artifacts were returned to the Egyptian Museum, Cairo on December 15, 2008. Eight of the Ma'adi vessels were purchased by a Swiss collector, who voluntarily returned them to the SCA in 2009. The remaining objects are still missing. (Oeters, 4)

Other reports from Egypt of this time indicate confusion over the riots and which areas were affected,

Dr. Zahi Hawass has posted [a] statement reassuring everyone about the safety and security of the museum and other sites, and has uploaded photos from the museum showing the heavy security in place. Dr. Hawass also expresses his frustration with reports of damage elsewhere, which he insists is not true, including Saqqara. I hope he will understand that the only reason everyone is concerned about possible damage is because of our love for Egypt and its incredible antiquities. (Hawass, 1)

Additionally, there was confusion about what was damaged inside of the museums and what was stolen,

In addition to expressing what he then firmly believed, which was that museum staff would continue to locate the missing objects, his intent in these earlier statements was to reassure the world that the damage at the museum, while tragic, was far less widespread than originally feared, and to make clear that the museum’s most major masterpieces, such as the Golden Mask of Tutankhamun, were safe. (“Museums in Egypt,” 1)

It is important to note, that while this was due to riots, the security of the museums were lacking, which is why the rioters were able to get inside of the museums. “[The] break-in could well have ended up being as serious as the looting and vandalism of the Kabul Museum (1994-2001) and the Baghdad Museum (2003).” (Awad, 1) Moreover, the security of museums in Egypt is still under scrutiny today,

According to Hawass, the country's 23 museums that are open to the public ‘are equipped with cameras and alarm systems to safeguard against theft and fires.’ Tourist and antiquities police are also deployed in these museums on a ‘permanent basis,’ he said in his statement. Another 18 museums that are being built or restored will also be equipped with hi-tech alarm systems, Hawass said. But Egyptian media and commentators failed to be swayed by such assurances and criticised what they said were ill-trained personnel and understaffing at the country's museums. (Stanton, 1)

Dr. Hawass plays an important role in protecting the works of ancient Egypt, and while the people of Egypt are proud of their heritage and culture, they need to show this to their government and place the funding of the security for their museums high in importance.

Protecting and enforcing the security of ancient artwork is a costly but important aspect today’s governments need to think about. Overall, the ability to study artwork for generations to come and maintaining the ability for visitors to safely view works without the threat of thieves and looters is very important. Museums also need to look carefully at how they received their art pieces and if they did not get them completely through legal means the museums should cooperate with government to either keep the works they have legally or return the works, as is the countries right to decide.

Works Consulted

Al-Shalchi, Hadeel. “Egypt to museums: Return our stolen treasures.” MSNBC News. Associated Press. April 8, 2010. November 2012.

---. “Security Problems Abound in Egypt’s Museums.” MSNBC News. Associated Press. August 27, 2010. November 2012. Web Link Removed

Awad, Riad A. “Egypt clamps down on security after museum theft.” AFP. August 24, 2010. October 2012. Web Link Removed.

Bailey, Martin. “Details of Looting of Cairo and other Egyptian Museums.” The Art Newspaper. January 31, 2011. October 2012. Web Link Removed

Burleigh, Nina. Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt. New York City: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007. Book.

Glock, Jean N. “Cairo’s Egyptian Museum After the Looting.” Huffington Post. September 26, 2012. October 2012.

Hawass, Dr. Zahi. “Update on the current state of antiquities.” Zahi Hawass. 2011. October 2012. Web Link Removed

“Museums in Egypt.” Tour Egypt. 2011. October 2012.

Oeters, Vincent. Webmaster. “Recovering Stolen Treasures.” Supreme Council of Antiquities.2012, Ministry of Culture- Egypt. October 2012.

Sarant, Louise. “Vandals Ravage Egyptian Museum, break mummies.” Egypt Independent. January 29, 2011. October 2012.

Stanton, Chris. “Egyptian Army boosts security at museums and archeological sites.” The National. February 1, 2011. October 2012.

Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael W. Cothren. Art History portable edition ver. 4: Ancient Art. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2011. Book.

Haley Bice
Haley Bice
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Haley Bice

Haley received her MA in Business Design and Arts Leadership from SCAD eLearning in 2018. She also has a BA in Art History with a Fine Art minor from SCSU and an ASc in Graphic Design from RCTC, both located in Minnesota.

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