From Egypt to London: looting in Antinoupolis (el Sheikh ‘Abadah)

The glass tessera recovered from Bonhams

The glass inlay recovered from Bonhams

The last issue of the Italian academic journal Analecta Papyrologica publishes an interesting report on episodes of illegal excavations and looting in the area of Antinoupolis (“Latrones: furti e recuperi da Antinoupolis”, Analecta Papyrologica XXVI 2014 pp. 359-402). Rosario Pintaudi, director of a long-running archaeological mission on the site, and his collaborators document robberies and plundering, but also some recoveries of objects, in the area since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. Some papyri, inscriptions and other pieces were recovered locally, but the most significant event reported is the recovery of an early Roman glass inlay stolen from the excavation site and later found on sale in an auction catalogue. This little and beautiful piece traveled from Egypt to the showrooms of Bonhams in London, where the sale was stopped by the police, after the object sold for about £ 5,000.

There are two important points emerging from the article. Firstly the searching of antiquities involves Egyptian local communities due to both the serious political and economic crisis, which makes life very hard for people, and the awareness that there is a flourishing and easily approachable market for these objects. It must be underlined that the core of the market is in Europe and elsewhere: as always the real money are made outside Egypt that remains a source, exploited country. Secondly, Pintaudi alerts the scholarly community on the sudden, recent appearance on the cultural scene of new big collections and a number of important, recently published papyri in the hands of anonymous collectors. Obviously there is no final proof that these two facts are directly linked to the situation in Egypt, but the Bonhams episode demonstrates that there is an absolute need for collectors and academics to be extremely careful when acquiring and publishing new texts and objects. As often happens, in the auction catalogue provenance was recorded as “English private collection, acquired in the late 1960s.” I wonder on the basis of which documents.

Bonhams catalogue entries for lot 64 and 65. The fish is remarkably similar to the glass tessera from Antinoupolis.

Bonhams catalogue entries for lot 64 and 65. The fish is remarkably similar to the glass inlay from Antinoupolis.

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3 thoughts on “From Egypt to London: looting in Antinoupolis (el Sheikh ‘Abadah)

  1. An interesting article abd thanks for remarks and thoughts. I don’t agree though with your justifications about why local communities are involved in searching for antiquities. serious political and economical crisis in Egypt have made an status quo even worse. If we take the year 1971 as an imaginary limit between legal and illegal searching and dealing in antiquities, then searching for and dealing in antiquities didn’t stop since this date. I my view as long as there is a flourishing maŕkt of antiquities in Europe and elsewhere, there will be always looting. This is clear to every one I think. Yes, of course, proper and adquate registeration of every single artifact in Egyptian museums and magazines and proper documentation and securing of archeological sites in Egypt is a must, but not the solution. A market is a market. I know its not so simple as I put it. But at least in Egypt we don’t have a market (no private collections any more and dealing in antiquities in any kind is prohibited ), but as you said we are the source. last but not least, I wonder how much did the local kids, whom we all say in the awfull pictures of looting, from this £ 5000. This an open question just to remind every one that the local communities represented by those kids are the tale of a long chain, the end of which is in Europe. So if you want to kill it, so don’t please cut (blame !) the tale, cut (blame!) the head. I know that you blame the head always, so take it please not personal, because it is not. Thanks again, Usama Gad.

    • Thank you Usama for reading and commenting. I do not justify Egyptians pillaging excavation sites, but I understand how in a country with so many problems people do not have the cultural resources and sensibility to understand that such behaviour is illegal and wrong and will cause even more damages. Moreover, as you say, they are clearly exploited by dealers and others who make the real money out of this shame. As you know, in Italy we have a lot of similar problems, despite the resources we have poured in security measures, special police/army units and the very strict legislation.
      I agree, we must blame both tale and head, but I can’t stop thinking that there is a difference between people in difficulty and those who exploit them.

  2. Talking about the antiquities trade in Egypt, the cut off date is 1983 when the sale of antiquities was banned, not 1970. There are still private collections in Egypt, which are registered with the state. Selling antiquities from these private collections is in theory possible, but impossible in practice, as the government can set a (artificially low) price and pre-empt the purchase.

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