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Recovered Loot: A Q&A about the Return of Stolen Egyptian Antiquities

Thieves took advantage of the recent chaos in Egypt to steal priceless artifacts. The country's minister of antiquities explains how he got them back



Photograph by Mikhail Galustov

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The weeks before Hosni Mubarak's ouster last winter turned into a tumultuous time during which precious artifacts were lifted from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (aka the Cairo Museum). For an interview that appears in the August issue of Scientific American, former Newsweek foreign editor Jeffrey Bartholet talked to Zahi Hawass, the minister of state for antiquities, about efforts to recover the artifacts. An excerpt from that interview follows, with supplementary questions on the missing artifacts and on the more general problem of antiquity theft in Egypt. 

What more can be done internationally to recover items looted since January?
We've gotten back the masterpieces. But I met [with] someone from INTERPOL a few days ago. We're going to put information about every object out to the whole world. I really think the looters who took the objects were not professional criminals. Therefore, I think the objects will be back. They will not leave Egypt.

You said there are 31 objects from the Cairo Museum still missing at this point. What are the most significant ones?
The only significant one from the Cairo Museum is a small head of Queen Nefertiti—a few centimeters high. The rest of the objects are bronze, Late Period statues.

The statue of Akhenaton has been returned?
We brought back the statue of Akhenaton holding a stela. And we've brought back most of King Tut's objects that had been stolen.

And where were they? Where did you find them?
Those were taken by the looters who entered the Cairo Museum on the night of January 28. We tracked them, and had people to ask and people to give us information. We got the objects of King Tut because there was someone working for the antiquities department who came to me and said that there were looters who wanted to return these objects back to me. And the next day he brought a bag with four objects.

And these looters approached the department official anonymously
It's a long story. He was sitting in a café, and heard them talking, and they said they need to return these objects to Zahi Hawass because they trust him.

Over the years, you've conducted a very public campaign to force international museums to return Egyptian artifacts to their home country. In the wake of the revolution and looting some in the West tried to make the argument that items were safer spread around the globe.
If the police would leave New York City or London for four hours, the looters would smash everything. Who protected Cairo Museum? Actually, they were young people. I will continue fighting to return back our masterpieces [including items kept in foreign museums]. I am planning to write a letter to ask for the return of the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin.

I saw news that the Natural History Museum of Basel became the first to return an artifact since the January revolution. Do you see that as significant?
Very important. It's a relief from the Old Kingdom, about 4,000 years ago. And this relief was stolen from Saqqara.

When was it stolen from Saqqara?
We really do not know. We have no evidence about when it left Egypt. But it's coming back soon.

You've threatened to cut scientific and research ties with any museums, universities or other institutions that hold stolen antiquities from the country.
I have already done that with the Louvre, and I will do it with any museum that does not return stolen artifacts to us.

So which museums are not cooperating, and have they essentially been cut off from projects in Egypt?
The Metropolitan Museum [in New York City] is the one that is really cooperating with us beautifully. They are sending us 19 pieces of King Tut and doing really good things. We [had] cut relations with the Louvre because we had evidence that they bought five reliefs—paintings from the tombs of the West Bank of Luxor.

Recently?
About two years ago, and they brought the pieces back, and we restored relations again.

Who had they bought them from?
You'll have to ask them.

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