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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Looting: A Call for Action

In these days we have been given important reports on the illegal market of antiquities from Egypt. If you haven’t yet, read the article by Bel Trew on the Daily Beast and watch this impressive video featuring among others Monica Hanna, a brave Egyptologist who has done a fantastic job in these years to stop looting:

It is remarkable that the mechanics through which the illegal, ongoing antiquity market is flourishing are still those of the colonial era. Dealers exploit the poverty of local populations for obtaining their collaboration, and then at the end of the supply chain they earn a thousand time more than what local looters received. As the authors of the above mentioned reports underline, it is the high demand for antiquities from collectors mostly based in North America, Europe, China and the Gulf that is nurturing these activities. We are still living in the age of empires under many respects.

It is a shame that we, scholars, have the power to help contrasting. We can do two simple things. First, as Erin Thompson has recently reminded us from the pages of the New York Times, we can help changing the mentality of collectors. For instance, if a wealthy collector invites you to collaborate to the formation of a new Museum of the Bible, instead of accepting suggest him to divert his money on helping existent libraries, museums, and cultural institutions to maintain, study and publish their already existent collections. Second, we can ask editorial boards, professional associations, museums and other institutions to enforce stricter rules on the publication and exhibition of Egyptian antiquities of recent acquisition.

If we really think we want the world to change, let’s be the first to change!