CAIRO: In a small office at the first floor of the Antiquities Ministry, seven Egyptian archeologists spend long hours every day browsing the internet in search for stolen artifacts that have been put up for sale in auction houses or e-commerce websites.
“Mission impossible is the best description to our complicated, bewildering but important job,” Head of the Restored Artifacts Department (RAD) at the Antiquities Ministry Dr. Aly Ahmed told The Cairo Post.
“If we find an artifact on an e-commerce website or listed at an auction house abroad, the RAD contacts Interpol, the Egyptian tourism and antiquities police and the Foreign Ministry’s cultural relations department which, in its turn, informs Egypt’s embassy in the country where the artifact has been detected to stop the sale until it is proven the artifact left Egypt in a legal way,” Aly added.
Keeping track of registered artifacts that have been stolen from archaeological sites, museums and storerooms of the antiquities ministry, “is definitely the easiest part of our job, while the process of detecting and repatriating unregistered ones is like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Aly said.
“We can monitor what is being sold in public but we cannot monitor what is being sold in secret. There is no record of how many artifacts have gone missing so far as many were taken from illicit digging, and there is no way to know that they even exist, ” Aly said.
Since the stolen artifact is not listed in the ministry’s archive and given that we only see its online photos uploaded in the e-commerce or the auction house website, we are unable to track its history and know where it has been stolen from, according to Aly.
“The complexity here is that trade in antiquities was legal in Egypt until the protection of antiquities law was issued in 1983. When a stolen artifact pops up on the internet, we are unable to determine whether it was smuggled from Egypt before 1983,” Aly said.
In order to stop the sale of an artifact, Interpol requires information including the laws of the country where the artifact was detected, Aly said. Among required information is when and from where the artifact was allegedly stolen along with a full description of the artifacts and since it is not registered, the department is unable to provide these information and unable to retrieve it accordingly.
“According to UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, Egypt has no right to claim the recovery of any artifact that was taken from Egypt before 1970,” Aly said in a low voice while shrugging.
When contacting auction houses and asking the suspension of the sale till the legitimacy of the artifact is proven, most of them refuse to engage with Aly’s office, saying that they have not received any legal notice from their home country to suspend the sale.
In theory, anyone seeking to sell an artifact of Egyptian origin is required to produce a document showing it was lawfully exported from Egypt, whose laws permitted the trade in antiquities until 1983, when all such trade was banned.
The RAD was established in 2002 with the aim of safeguarding Egypt’s heritage, and repatriating the stolen artifacts that have been taken from illicit digging which, according to Aly, increased dramatically since the political upheaval of 2011.
“It is extremely difficult to know exactly when these items arrived to the legal market and in which way, because it is possible they pass through different countries, different private sellers, and can get several provenances before reappearing in a legal auction,” Major General Ahmed Abdel Zaher, head of the Antiquities Investigations Section told The Cairo Post Thursday.
In order to transport goods to market countries, the stolen artifacts usually pick up export certificates in transit countries, Abdel Zaher added.
During the past four years, Egypt has recovered over 1,600 artifacts and is are currently working on other cases in many European countries, he said.
Sarah Parcak, a space archaeologist at the University of Alabama in the United States, has developed a satellite and infrared-based system to monitor ancient Egypt’s archaeological sites to prevent looting, according to Archaeology.org.
Parcak’s system uses Google Earth’s high resolution satellite imagery to identify and monitor what she calls “hot spots” where organized looting activities might occur.
But such ideas have gotten stuck in the pipelines of the Egyptian bureaucracy, Archaeologist Ahmed Momtaz told The Cairo Post Thursday.
“It will be a struggle to regain control over our antiquities, but if we do not, we are in a big danger of losing a significant part of our unrivaled heritage,” Momtaz added.