Current Affairs - Illegal Antiquities Trade



Four More Artefacts Returned to the Cairo Museum

The Ministry of State for Antiquities announced on 11th April 2011 that it had recovered a further four objects missing from the Egyptian Museum since the January Revolution. The objects were apparently found in a black bag lying abandoned on a chair at Shubra Metro station in Cairo by Mr Salah Abdel Salam, a public relations officer at the MSA as he was going into work. Looking inside the bag, presumably before handing it in to the lost property department, he observed the gilded figure of Tutankhamun and took the bag with him and handed it over to Dr Tarek el-Awadi, director of the Cairo Museum. The four objects that were returned to the Museum were:

  1. The gilded wooden statue of Tutankhamun standing in a boat throwing a harpoon: JE 60710.1.
  2. One of the 10 missing shabtis of Yuya and Thuya: JE 68982.
  3. The gilded bronze and wooden trumpet of Tutankhamun: JE 62008.
  4. A part of Tutankhamun’s fan: JE 62006.

The statue (JE 60710.1) has suffered slight damage; a small part of the crown is missing as well as pieces of the legs. The papyrus that the statue was originally standing on is still in the Museum, and the figure of the king will be reunited with it before being put back on display. One face of the fan (JE 62006) is in good condition while the other has been broken into 11 pieces, and part of it is still missing. Following the return of these objects, the number of artefacts still missing is 33 objects out of the original total of 54. An exhibition of the reinstated objects was held at the Egyptian Museum to celebrate World Heritage Day on 18th April. Dr Hawass announced that the MSA is offering a reward to anyone that hands-in or has information about any of the outstanding 33 objects. The thieves who were caught stealing antiquities from the Cairo Museum have been sentenced to 15 years in prison and been handed heavy fines. It is hoped that these sentences may deter other would-be looters from ransacking archaeological sites and breaking into magazines.

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Smuggling Attempt Foiled in the Sinai

On the 4th April 2011 customs officials in Nuweiba in cooperation with the police managed to arrest a Jordanian driver, Mr Karim Hassan Abd El-Fatah, who was driving a refrigerated truck loaded with cheese trying to cross to Jordan. As the truck went through the customs at the ferry port the x-ray scanner detected a large quantity of artefacts hidden in 33 cartons and rolls. The objects found included 40 metal statuettes, 52 amulets, five wooden masks, a copper vase, four metal shields and a large collection of Pharaonic and Islamic pottery hidden in a secret cache in the truck. Director General of Nuweiba’s Antiquities Department Abdel Rehim Rayhan added that security forces also found 17 silver and gold pieces that are not antiquities and do not fall under the antiquity law. The driver was remanded in custody and a report was filed on the incident. The defendant will stand before the General Prosecutor later this month.

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Smuggling of Islamic Documents Thwarted

Egyptian authorities on Wednesday 22nd March 2011 thwarted an attempt to smuggle a collection of important Islamic books, documents, and five manuscripts dating back between 100 and 300 years. Customs officials in collaboration with the airport antiquities unit foiled an attempt to smuggle historical documents to Saudi Arabia via an Egyptian company. Customs officers discovered the documents when they opened a suspicious package during checks on exports to Riyadh from Cairo Airport. After inspecting the contents of the parcel, specialist Islamic archaeologists deemed them historical documents subject to the Law on Protection of Cultural Property and that their exportation was illegal. Customs officials then confiscated the documents and plan to send them to the National Library and Archives.

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Military Arrests Six Looters

On the 10th April 2011 Armed Forces personnel arrested two students and four adult workers on for excavating artefacts west of Cairo in 6th of October City, according to security sources. Preliminary investigations indicate the suspects had specifically formed a group for illegally excavating monuments during a lack of security presence in the country. On the morning of 10th April the suspects went to an ancient cemetery in a village called Beni Suef, part of 6th of October City, where soldiers noticed them digging. They were immediately arrested and referred to prosecutors, who sent them to prison while further investigations are carried out. This region is famous for Old Kingdom remains, many of which have not yet been investigated or have only briefly been published. This makes the protection of these sites all the more important. It also raises the question of whether a list of endangered site needs to be drawn up, with unexcavated or only briefly investigated sites circulated to potential site directors. This list of sites could be divided by period so that researchers can focus on the time periods that they specialise in. The creation of such a list would be far easier if a complete computerised Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) or National Register existed, but this is also a good opportunity to create such a tool.

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Artefacts Go Missing from the American University Cairo

An underground storehouse of Islamic and a few Coptic and Pharaonic artefacts was raided on the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) campus, beneath Ewart Hall on 15th March 2011. The storeroom had its padlocks broken and objects were thrown everywhere. An inventory was carried out by the Ministry of State for Antiquities immediately after the discovery, which revealed that a total of 146 original antiquities and 50 replicas are missing. Six AUC employees were arrested and charged with the theft and a preliminary court hearing was scheduled for Sunday, 27th March.

Zahi Hawass said that all the antiquities in possession of AUC are documented with the MSA, and are registered in three different Islamic antiquities logs and archives of Fustat excavations and that the last inventory was carried out in April last year. The majority of artefacts were the result of excavations conducted by the university in the Fustat area in the 1960s-70s lead by Prof. George Scanlon, who was a Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture in the Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations at AUC. At that time, there was a law in Egypt, Law 215, enacted in 1951, that stated that the results of foreign expeditions would be split equally between the foreign mission and the antiquities department. Other artefacts were added to the collection by ex-President Prof. Richard Pederson, who thought it would be nice to have a teaching collection of antiquities on campus, and bought pieces in the Khan al-Khalili. The AUC antiquities collection was also looted on 28th June 1989 and the criminals that perpetrated that crime are still at large. According to an AUC spokesman exhibiting the artefacts to the public would require space and strict security measures that the university lacks. Dr Hawass has written a letter to the President of AUC, Prof. Lisa Anderson, to inform her that it is safer for these objects to be stored in a magazine in Fustat, and the University can have access to them at anytime.

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A New Heritage Law to be Implemented

To combat the trade in illicit antiquities, aide the recovery of stolen artefacts and increase protection of archaeological sites, the Egyptian government is to introduce a new law to update and replace Law 117. This new law has already been drafted and is awaiting the approval of the People's Assembly in the coming months. Ashraf Ashmawy, legal consultant in the SCA, told Al-Ahram Weekly that changes in the 1983 heritage law 117 focussed on five articles. The first was properly and legally to identify three main terms -- the SCA's permanent committee, the inviolable area around every monument, and the land found next door to the archaeological site -- in an attempt to provide all the necessary security measures and a healthy environmental atmosphere around archaeological sites. The second article to be repealed is the section of the law allowing possession of antiquities. A year after the approval of the law all owners of Egyptian antiquities must hand over all objects to the SCA, which in its turn will install them in their archaeological storehouses. Ashmawy continued that Article 7 of the old law stipulating that the police were the only department authorised to remove any encroachments on archaeological sites or monuments had been changed. Such responsibility is to be given to the SCA's secretary-general, or to someone he entrusts, while the police agencies will only be a safeguarding agency while executing the secretary-general's decision. Article 30 has been added to the law stipulating that the SCA is the only authority competent to carry out restoration and preservation work for all Egyptian monuments, archaeological sites and historical edifices. The minister of culture will have the authority to assign any scientific authority or mission to execute any such work, but under complete supervision of the SCA's secretary-general. As for penalties for breaking the law, according to Ashmawy all these have been doubled or tripled. The new penalties will be as follows:

  • A smuggler in illicit antiquities - life imprisonment and a fine of LE100,000 to 500,000
  • Anyone caught stealing, hiding or collection authentic antiquities, or owns them without permission - 25 years imprisonment and a fine of LE50,000 to 250,000
  • Stealing or aiding and abetting in the robbery of a genuine artefact or piece of a monument or deliberately disfiguring artefacts or monuments - 15 years imprisonment and a fine of LE50,000 to 100,000
  • The writing of graffiti or affixing of billposters and billboards to walls of monuments will be a violation of Egyptian cultural heritage - six to 12 months imprisonment or a fine of LE150,000

This last point is a subject that ECHO has been highlighting for many years ( and along with the other new improvements to the law welcomes wholeheartedly. The new law will grant clemency to anyone who confesses to or divulges information leading to prosecution of anyone involved in an antiquities crime. Experts assigned by the SCA will check the authenticity of any confiscated objects in an attempt to guarantee a fair and accurate decision. In late December ECHO will deliver to Dr Zahi Hawass a dossier it has compiled on a group of antiquities it believes were smuggled out of Egypt during 2000 and went through Port Geneva, a freeport in Switzerland on their way to unscrupulous antiquities collectors. This group of artefacts includes a rare Dynasty II ceiling stele, believed to have been stolen from the site of Helwan. (

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On the Trail of Illicit Antiquities

The recovery of stolen antiquities and the prosecution of those responsible have had a high-profile since Zahi Hawass took office in 2002. The illicit trade in antiquities is a global market, stretching from the Egyptian desert to Chinese tombs to Peruvian monuments, and pulls in some of the most- respected names in art and academia. The highly organised theft of Egyptian antiquities would seem to suggest that the thieves themselves have easy access to these unique artefacts and that it's just as easy for them to smuggle them abroad. By putting tremendous pressure on scientists, archaeologists, antiquities experts and museums abroad, officials at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) have managed to retrieve some of these items smuggled out of the country by gangsters who secretly trade in Egypt's cultural heritage. Sometimes in the past Egyptian authorities have threatened the smugglers with the curse of the Pharaohs and it's actually worked - some of these thieves have returned the artefacts they've stolen after suffering mysterious accidents. However, there seems to be no end to the corruption in the antiquities sector. The thefts are never ending and in fact they are on the increase.

In April 2002 one of the largest hails of illicit antiquities ever found was impounded at Heathrow Airport. Egypt recovered 56,000 out of a total of 113,000 objects held at Heathrow, reflecting the mutual cooperation between Egypt and the UK. According to investigations by Scotland Yard, the shipment belonged to Mamdouh Michael, an Egyptian residing in Zurich, who claimed that he had inherited the artefacts from his father in 1956. Because Michael did not provide documents that proved his ownership, a British Museum expert was brought in to check the artefacts' authenticity. In June 2002, an Egyptian antiquities committee also examined them, and concluded that the objects were smuggled out of Cairo in 1997. Zahi Hawass said a joint SCA/Egyptian State Security effort subsequently found that the artefacts had been officially registered in SCA documents. State Security's Hisham Abdel-Meguid said the objects would now be used as evidence in a major antiquities smuggling case that is currently in court. This foiling of antiquities smuggling was followed in late 2002 / early 2003 when seven artefacts stolen from antiquity warehouses throughout Egypt were put up for sale in Australia. However, these criminals were arrested in January 2003 as these items, including a statuette, bow, amulets and an axe went up for auction. A previous auction of 11 stolen artefacts was also stopped in Australia. The Australian authorities have been closely cooperating with the Egyptian police and lawyers throughout this case, with the artefacts themselves being used as evidence in the trial of the 10 men accused of the theft. Officials also intercepted some of the smuggled antiquities at Cairo Airport and recovered other the US, Germany and the Netherlands, making a total of 57,000 smuggled objects recovered.

In August 2005, Judge Gamal Eddin Safwat jailed three men for life over this smuggling scam. Safwat said before announcing the sentences that "smuggling antiquities abroad is one of the most dangerous crimes because of the negative impact it has on the country's economic interests". The men found guilty included the former head of the SCA department that inspects the collections of registered antiquities traders, Dr Abdul Karim Abu Shanab. He was convicted of providing the smugglers with certificates showing genuine artefacts were imitations, so they could be carried through customs under the guise of replicas, accepting bribes and forgery. Abu Shanab said after being sentenced "This is injustice. I have done nothing. This is all because of personal problems between myself and the antiquities bureau of investigations to remove me from my position". Nothing does not include selling a nation's cultural history, their very identify. Abu Shanab's lawyer said they would appeal.

Four other defendants received sentences ranging from fines to 15 years in prison. They included a Swiss citizen and a German of Egyptian origin. Four of the seven, including the Swiss and German nationals, were convicted in their absence. Another three were acquitted. Officials estimated that the 57,000 pieces that the smuggling gang exported were worth about $55m. The items they tried to smuggle included human and animal mummies, coins, statues and wooden sarcophagi. During the police investigations many of the stolen artefacts were found hidden in tunnels under the villas of three relatives of the accused - businessmen, who were convicted at an earlier trial. The cache of artefacts in the tunnels also included certificates allegedly signed by Abu Shanab. Egyptian law says only reproductions of antiquities can be exported, so many of the items were given certificates to show they were replicas. ( and (

In September 2005 it seemed the curse of the Pharaohs had struck in the Egyptian Museum's basement. When archaeological inspectors from Giza asked for the return of 14 objects placed on loan with the museum last April, to celebrate World Heritage Day, curators realised that three statues dating back to 2649-2150 BC had vanished. In an attempt to find the missing statues Zahi Hawass appointed a committee of "seven to eight" archaeologists and 40 inspectors to search the colossal basement. Hawass said the committee's task was to 'survey and list everything in the basement' in order to bring some order to the cluttered abyss. According to museum curator Lotfi Abdel Hamid, there are approximately 120,000 artefacts on display in the museum and another 110,000 in the basement; although no one really knows the exact numbers. However, after sorting through the overwhelmingly large collection of stored artefacts, no sign of the missing objects were found. That was until October, when the Tourism and Antiquities Police (TAP) arrested two men who were trying to sell the objects by showing photographs of the objects to dealers. Following a tip off, police captured the men, both of them employees of a company contracted to do restoration work in the museum, in a sting operation with officers presenting themselves as antiquities dealers.

The three missing artefacts were a limestone statuette of a seated commander of the royal guard that is 23.5cm tall, a dyad of the director of artisans, Neferref-Nessu and his wife that is 35cm tall and a wooden box without a cover that contains a burnt clay statuette of Osiris. Police said that the suspects smuggled the artefacts out of the building in bags that they used to remove rubble from the basement of the museum, which explained why they were not searched at the gates. The thieves then hid the artefacts in a house overlooking a canal in Ayatt, Giza. The two criminals are expected to be sentenced to between 10 and 15 years hard labour. The arrests came just days after the Minister of Culture - Farouk Hosni ordered a probe into reports about damage to the famous copper statue of Merenre, also during restoration work at the museum. Hosni has called for a full investigation into the theft and security at the museum is expected to be increased with all museum staff being thoroughly searched on leaving the premises. There is also going to be an ID made of each object so that its movements within the museum can be more easily traced. Work is also underway to upgrade the storage facilities at the museum. A training course run under the supervision of UNESCO will increase the knowledge and skills of the museum curators and raise their awareness of new methodologies. (

These are not the first objects to go missing from the museum's basement. Last year a statue of the Nile God Hapi was misplaced, but was eventually found after a thorough search of the basement. Also last year, 38 gold bracelets some decorated with precious stones excavated from Kom Ombo in 1905, dating to the Graeco-Roman Period went missing. Eventually 17 employees of the museum were arrested for their theft. After all these problems in the Egyptian Museum the last straw for the Minister of Culture - Hosni Farouk was a fire breaking out in the Beni Suef Cultural Palace, killing 30 people. He immediately offered his resignation, but this was rejected three days later by President Hosni Mubarak after please from some 400 intellectuals for him to stay. However, in the continuing fall-out from these unfortunate incidents the Director of the Museum Sector of the SCA - Mahmoud Mabrouk was asked by Zahi Hawass to stand down in late November 2005.

This summer, in a speech at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin held at UNESCO in Paris, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, said "Egypt had been deprived of five key items of Egypt's cultural heritage". A campaign has been launched for the return of these five items. The five items are:

  1. The Rosetta Stone - British Museum, London
  2. The Bust of Nefertiti - Agyptisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  3. The Zodiac Ceiling painting from the Dendera Temple - Louvre, Paris
  4. The statute of Hemiunu, the nephew and vizier of Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the Great pyramid - Roemer-Pelizaeu Museum, Hildesheim
  5. The Bust of Anchhaf, builder of the Khafre Pyramid - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Zahi Hawass said UNESCO had agreed to mediate in its claims for artefacts currently at the British Museum, the Louvre in Paris, two German museums and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. (, (

Zahi Hawass has stated that Egypt exerts tremendous efforts for restoring smuggled antiques from abroad, noting that 3000 artefacts had been restored during the past three years. To this end the SCA has compiled a catalogue of antiquities taken out of the country since the ratification of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and has warned that it will refuse to cooperate with museums refusing or failing to return stolen antiquities. Further measures may also be taken in the rescinding of archaeological permits to missions from countries that fail to cooperate, therefore effectively ending their research in Egypt and seriously damaging their ability to conduct Egyptology.

This autumn Egyptian authorities have demanded that institutions in Britain and Belgium return two Pharaonic reliefs it says were chipped off tombs and stolen 30 years ago, threatening to end their archaeological work in Egypt if they refuse. Zahi Hawass said “he would cut off the Catholic University's excavation mission at a site in Deir al-Barsha, near the southern town of Minya, if the relief was not returned, and would suspend the Fitzwilliam Museum's 'scientific relationship' with archaeologists working here if the British institution did not cooperate." The two reliefs concerned are reported to be 4,400-year-old reliefs, taken from two tombs uncovered in 1965 near the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. These demands are the latest in a series of attempts by Egypt to recover ancient treasures that were taken out of the country, either through theft or what the Egyptians have termed "imperialism." "We are not afraid of anything; anyone who makes a mistake should be punished. This is history. We need our history, and anyone who steals our artefacts has no place in Egypt," Hawass said. The Fitzwilliam Museum said no one could immediately comment on the report. There was also no immediate comment from the Catholic University. A third relief was returned to Egypt from the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels this autumn after Egypt's antiquities council put on hold a request by the museum to extend its excavation work, the statement said. With the return, the council has agreed to allow the work to continue.

In its fight to regain priceless Egyptian artefacts, the SCA has started a crackdown on websites that sell stolen antiquities. According to Akhbar Al Adab, the council has identified many websites that are selling illicit antiquities. The SCA is taking legal steps to retrieve some antiquities to be sold at auctions around the world. SCA Secretary General, Zahi Hawass said 13 websites were advertising Egyptian antiquities for sale at auction in August, while the total for July was 22 websites. The SCA's Archaeological Department has collected all brochures of these auction halls and forwarded them to the Public Funds Prosecution in order to take the needed legal steps to reacquire the items. He added that a SCA committee has carefully compared the antiquities in the brochures with photos of Egypt's missing antiquities. Some of the missing items belong to an Egyptian trader, while others have gone missing from the museum at Cairo University's Faculty of Archaeology and the storehouse of the university's Faculty of Arts, as well as from an archaeological area at Marina in Egypt's North Coast.

German police seized 86 ancient Egyptian antiquities (mainly funerary objects and jewellry) at a freight depot in Berlin after a tip-off from the Egyptian Attorney General. The treasures were being consigned from Switzerland to the US after being sold for two million dollars. They were seized at the end of October but this was not made public at the time. The Egyptian Ambassador in Berlin became suspicious of the artefacts due to be sold and warned colleagues back home in Egypt and a team from the SCA flew to Germany to recover the precious artefacts. The Berlin state prosecutor has opened an inquiry into the origin and legitimacy of the ancient Egyptian sarcophagus dating to the 4th Century BC, seized as part of the haul.

These pieces are linked to the largest smuggling case ever judged in Egypt, which saw seven people handed long prison sentences in August, according to the Secretary General of the SCA, Zahi Hawass. The antiquities had been smuggled out of the country by brothers Farouq and Mohammed el-Shaer, Abdel-Karim Abu Shanab and others, who were recently sentenced to up to 15 years with hard labour by Cairo Criminal Court for smuggling offences. Prosecutors in Egypt have since established that the artefacts left Egypt in the 1970s, contravening the 1970 UNESCO agreement, before spending many years in Switzerland.

In August 2005, a Briton was held on suspicion of smuggling antiquities. He was arrested at Cairo airport with 66 Medieval Islamic manuscripts in his possession. The manuscripts were discovered as the man's bags were passed through the airport's x-ray machines. The manuscripts covered a range of topics including early Arabic medicine and magic and also contained excerpts from the Bible in both Arabic and Coptic. Egyptian authorities have managed to foil an attempt to sell 50 Pharaonic artefacts at the Medusa Auction House in Canada. Dr Zahi Hawass said that the SCA has been monitoring 43 auctions all over the world to trace Egyptian artefacts on sale there. Hawass continued, that the Prosecutor-General was notified and the Canadian authorities contacted in order to halt the sale and have the artefacts returned to Egypt. The Canadian authorities have already taken measures to impound the pieces until Egypt sends a technical and judicial committee.

A stolen stele has been was recovered from the Royal Museum for Art and History in Brussels, Belgium. The Old Kingdom stele was originally stolen from Egypt by thieves in 1965 and smuggled to Belgium where it was sold to an antiquities collector. In 1973 it was purchased by the Brussels museum. In April 2005 an Egyptian delegation travelled to Belgium to receive the invaluable work of art from the museum.

In July 2005, an inscribed block of Egyptian alabaster, which was originally removed from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings and smuggled out of the country in 1958, was posted back to the SCA. Apparently the decorated block had been in the possession of a friend of Jack A. Graves, an emeritus professor at the California State University. Graves sent a letter to Zahi Hawass explaining that just before his friend died he had given him the piece, feeling guilty that he had stolen the monument and asked that it be returned to its rightful owners. The block, which refers to Seti I is now in the Egyptian Museum being studied. The return of this block was preceded two years ago by the return of four fragments from Seti I tomb (KV) by the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. These pieces of the tomb had been in the museums possession since 1875, when they were bought from an antiquities trader.

In spring 2005, an Australian institution working in the ancient arts domain returned to Egypt a number of rare Coptic scripts in response to the international campaign launched by UNESCO to restore stolen Egyptian monuments. The institution sent a letter to Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities clarifying that it possesses these rare scripts which date back to the fifth century. The institution expressed readiness to conduct conservation work on the scripts and publish them scientifically before handing them to Egypt.

In February 2005 8 Al-Alfi Street, in Downtown Cairo was raised by police, archaeologists retrieving a huge cache of artefacts hidden since 1971. The collection included a number of anthropoid sarcophagi, painted mummy masks, ushabtis, limestone reliefs, necklaces, amulets, and scarabs, as well as a group of Graeco-Roman statues, Islamic vessels, clay chandeliers and coloured textiles. In 1971 a Frenchman named Gérard Razier was arrested at this same address, and subsequently sentenced to six months imprisonment for illegal possession of antiquities, although the sentence was later quashed on appeal. The objects remained confiscated in the apartment until 1992, when archaeologists from the SCA paid the place a visit and were surprised to discover that the apartment was co-owned by the Frenchman and an Egyptian by the name of Mohamed Ali Farag, who had used it as a cinema production office prior to 1971. However, for some unknown reason the antiquities officials failed to do anything about retrieving the antiquities in the apartment.

In 2004 Farag was sentenced to five years imprisonment for his role in a major Swiss-Egyptian antiquity smuggling ring headed by Tareq El-Seweissi, former head of the National Democratic Party's Giza district office. As part of recent SCA efforts to combat illegal smuggling of artefacts, the El-Seweissi case re-ignited interest in the El-Alfi Street cache. All but three of the 3052 objects recovered from Al-Alfi Street have now been examined, documented, restored and put on display at the Egyptian Museum. The three objects not put on display in the museum were found to be fake, prompting fears that the originals may have been sold.

Another welcome move in the fight to save cultural heritage being stolen and placed in the hands of private collectors is the reinstating of the Antiquities Market column of the Journal of Field Archaeology published by Boston University. "For over 20 years (1974-1993) the "Antiquities Market" section of the Journal provided news and commentary on the illicit traffic in antiquities and on issues of cultural heritage relevant to field archaeologists from around the world. Much has happened in recent years; military conflict, natural disaster, development, political or religious extremism, calculated looting, and the illicit sale of antiquities all combine to jeopardize the very existence of archaeology. What is clear from all the various efforts and questions is that globalization is bringing us all closer together, and that we need a more concentrated international initiative for how we document and preserve the archaeological record. Concrete proposals for such initiative are required. The restoration of the 'Antiquities Market' is intended to reopen dialogue on these pressing issues by discussing specific sites in jeopardy and instances of looting, highlighting current trends, and encouraging all those who value the past to work to protect cultural heritage". (

An article looking not only at the recent dramas at the Getty Museum, whose curator goes on trial in Autumn 2005, but at the incidence of smuggled items in other U.S. museums and the efforts of nations to protect themselves against smuggling. This article states that in the three years since Hawass took over, Egypt has recovered 2,000 objects from overseas, mostly from auction houses and dealers ( In another article, from Science Daily, it states that Italian investigators have reported that some antiquities in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and a major private collection were illegally excavated and exported.

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An Illicit Journey Out of Egypt, Only a Few Questions Asked

In early February 2004, Egyptian police authorities smashed a smuggling ring led by an agricultural engineer, which had been systematically looting and illegally dealing antiquities. The smuggling ring, which had been working in the Delta, arranged to meet a man in Kafr el-Sheikh, 180 km north of Cairo, in order to sell him £250,000 worth of artefacts. The man, whom they thought was an illicit antiquities dealer, was in fact an undercover police officer who had duped the gang. As the meeting was taking place, and the antiquities were being handed over, police moved in arrested the five strong gang of smugglers. The police recovered a statue of Horus, kitchen tools, jars containing mummified snakes and scorpions, and Pharaonic seals. The antiquities had come from numerous sites, many in the Delta.

In November 2003 over 300 Egyptian artefacts were recovered after an international police operation. The artefacts were discovered in a duty-free warehouse in Geneva, Switzerland. They were returned to Egypt after General Prosecutor, Mr Maher Abdel Wahid made an official request for their return, which is in accord with a security agreement designed to stop trafficking in illicit antiquities, signed in 2002 between Egypt and Switzerland. The cracking of this looting and trafficking ring was the climax of six months police investigations and came after a raid on the Mansouriya villa of the former head of Egypt's National Democratic Party's Giza office, Tarek El-Sweissi. The police found several antiquities stashed in El-Sweissi's villa and promptly arrested him. In Switzerland, in a related but as part of separate investigations by the Swiss police, 300 objects were found stored in a duty-free warehouse in Geneva. Cooperation between the Egyptian and Swiss police showed a clear connection between the smuggling of the antiquities found in Switzerland and El-Sweissi. Both Egyptians, including El-Sweissi, former police officers, customs and antiquities officials and foreigners from many different nationalities, were tried for operating an illicit antiquities trafficking ring. The Egyptians that took part in this heinous crime were looting the artefacts from various sites and proceeding to export them by passing them off as replicas from the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. The artefacts, which range from the Predynastic to the Roman Period, include a gold anthropomorphic mask, a statue of Ptah, wooden sarcophagi and mummies, statues of Roman gods, and many other items are now safely in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo.

The New York Times recently ran an interesting article detailing a trail of looted antiquities and the fate of the perpetrators of this despicable crime ( The article details the multinational aspect of the crime as well as its longevity. Although there has been much recent success in capturing and prosecuting looters, traffickers and illicit dealers, as well as reclaiming the antiquities themselves, it is essential that the pressure on these criminals is maintained. It is important for not only the Egyptian authorities to be vigilant, but for all Egyptologists, conservators, heritage managers, museum keepers, specialists, in fact any upstanding person, to be on the look out for illicit antiquities. Many websites are offering dubiously provenanced Egyptian antiquities, as do auction-rooms; the ECHO Code of Ethics outlines means of combating the trade in illicit antiquities.

ECHO is totally against looting and the sale of dubiously provenanced Egyptian antiquities as a whole on the antiquities market. The more ancient Egyptian antiquities appear on the market, the more it fuels the need for these antiquities amongst collectors. This in turn encourages more looting and destruction of archaeological sites. The ripping out of antiquities from the ground robs them of their context and value to elucidate past human actions. The results of looting on an archaeological site, with human bones, mummy wrappings and broken artefacts strewn around the site have been witnessed first hand by ECHO Trustees. Archaeology is a time consuming and meticulous process however, once a site has been looted it robs Egypt of its legal heritage and the chance for archaeologist to piece together past human activities and behaviour. The New York Times article is a very important piece of for anyone interested in stopping this crime against Egyptian cultural heritage, a crime that robs humanity of its history.

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An Update on the Looting of Artefacts in Alexandria

This week Dr Zahi Hawass stated that the theft of Egyptian antiquities by a person working with the French Archaeological Mission in the Harbour at Alexandria was working alone and that no blame what-so-ever can be attached to the official French Mission. He also said that a fuller statement on this matter would shortly be forthcoming. This is good news for all archaeologists working in Egypt, for institutional looting would be a travesty; the capture of this errant individual is a good example of the deterrents for weak willed people that are tempted by personal gain.

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Suspected looter of Antiquities held by Egyptian Police

Police at Alexandria Airport detained an architect who was a member of the French Underwater Mission working in the bay at Alexandria. The Airport Police found Graeco-Roman artefacts in the man's baggage. This kind of behaviour by anyone is deplorable, by a member of an archaeological team it is totally unacceptable and ECHO expects the Egyptian authorities to act in the appropriate manner.

ECHO is fighting to protect Egyptian heritage and raise awareness of the damage that looting of artefacts causes. The Board of Trustees wholeheartedly condemn the actions of prepitrators of crimes such as this.

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Current Affairs


The Trustees of ECHO are sad to announce the loss of our beloved friend and colleague Dr. Geoffrey J. Tassie, affectionately known as Tass.

There has been and continues to be illegal encroachment on the UNESCO World Heritage Listed site of Dahshur. The Trustees of ECHO are supporting this petition to try and stop this illegal building activity and so can you, please sign the petition

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ECHO article detailing the endangered sites in the Faiyum is now available to download as a PDF

Protection of Cultural Heritage in Revolutionary Times: The International Workshop on Prevention of Destruction, Looting and Theft of Cultural Heritage. Cairo, September 2012.
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