Chaos in Today's Egypt Sparks Worries About Its Ancient Past

King Tut
King Tut

As the political chaos in Egypt worsens, interest about the country's glorious ancient past appears to be growing among Westerners, according to officials at two museums that display these items. At the same time, antiquities authorities in Egypt are warning museums and auction houses to be on the alert for people trying to sell looted items.

Staff at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum & Planetarium of California are being peppered with questions about the problems facing modern Egypt. Increasing numbers of Web visitors are checking out information on Ancient Egypt on National Geographic's website, according to spokeswoman Mimi Koumanelis.

The Science Museum of Minnesota has had to reassure its patrons that its King Tut exhibit, Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs, will open as scheduled on Feb. 18, says spokeswoman Chris Bauer.

An exhibit on Cleopatra is due to open the same day at the Cincinnati Museum Center. And a second Tut exhibit, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs, which has been in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, heads to Australia in April.

How Bad Might the Looting Be?

People seem to be worried about media reports that protesters have damaged Cairo's Egyptian Antiquities Museum, home to the what many see as the world's greatest collection of Egyptian artifacts, including those from the tomb of King Tut and other sites. Fortunately, many Egyptians are taking it upon themselves to protect the country's past, which is heartening, though that may prove to be difficult to do if the violence continues to worsen.

Experts, such as Brown University Egyptology's Laurel Bostock, are alarmed. "The degree of looting from Egyptian sites is still not clear," she writes in an email to DailyFinance. "While Zahi Hawass, minister of antiquities, has assured the international community that all museums and sites are safe, more worrisome accounts are coming from other people currently in Egypt.We must wait to see what reports can be substantiated."

Bostock adds: "There is a real concern that any looted antiquities will end up on the black market.In the strongest possible terms I urge people not to buy antiquities, Even in times of peace, the market for antiquities directly fuels looting of sites and undermines our collective ability to understand Ancient Egypt."

Lesser-Known Sites Are Vulnerable

Officials at the major auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's had no immediate comment when asked if they had been approached to buy Egyptian antiquities of dubious origin. Reputable museums and collectors say they don't buy items for their collections without iron-clad provenances or ownership pedigrees. Still, some looted items do slip through the cracks. In 2008, Christie's took antiquities from Iraq off the market after the Iraqi government alleged they were stolen. Last year, the U.S. returned to Iraq more than 500 artifacts pillaged from its museum and archaeological sites during the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

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Odds are strong that Egyptian looters will try to sell their ill-gotten gains on the black market even though it may be foolhardy. The collections of institutions such as the Cairo Museum are so well-known that no legitimate buyer would dare purchase them. Moreover, Egyptian law recognized by the U.S., prohibits the export of antiquities without the proper documentation. But objects from lesser-known sites may be more vulnerable.

"You don't steal them to collect them to put them to put them in your house in Cairo," says Robert Wittman, the former senior investigator and founder of the FBI's National Art Crime Team, who us now a private consultant. He adds that potential Egyptian antiquities buyers should also be leery about the "multitude of fakes out there."

Private collectors remain keenly interested in Ancient Egyptian items. New York-based Sadigh Galleries lists an Egyptian sarcophagus for sale for $90,000 along with a variety of mummified animals for $12,000 to $25,000. For more modest budgets, wall fragments with hieroglyphic inscriptions retail for about $700 to $1,500. Owner Michael Sadigh didn't respond to requests for comment.

Tut and Cleopatra: Crowd Pleasers

Westerners have been smitten by Ancient Egypt for centuries. Interest was reignited by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which enabled scholars to decipher the culture's hieroglyphic writing. In 1922, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Tut's tomb in the Valley of the Kings, which sparked a renewed fascination with Ancient Egypt that continues to this day. Tut exhibits have smashed attendance records at museums around the world ever since the 1970s, and they continue to do so today. Cleopatra is always a huge draw as well.

"Many Americans feel a connection with Egypt, especially Ancient Egypt," says Rosicrucian Executive Director Julie Scott, in a telephone interview from her office in San Jose, Calif.

Scott's comments were echoed by Harold Holzer, the Met's senior vice president for external affairs, who tells DailyFinance that "we certainly have been getting questions" about what's going on in Egypt. He adds that it was tough to tell whether the turmoil had helped boost ticket sales because "frankly, the Egypt galleries are always crowded."

Digs on Hold

The Met and other museums with ties to Egypt, such as the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology Canada's Royal Ontario Museum, are watching events in Egypt closely. Archaeologists from the Met and Penn left Egypt before the uprising began, and officials say no decisions have been made on when they'll return. Royal Ontario has no Egypt digs underway, and any future excavations are on hold.

Brown's Bostock isn't sure what she'll do either.

"I returned from the field on Jan. 20. Some members of my team stayed in Egypt to work with another project; they have now been evacuated," she writes. "Because the situation is so fluid and its ultimate outcome unclear, I cannot predict what effect, if any, there will be on my plans to excavate next winter.My hopes and concerns for Egypt right now have less to do with my own work than with the desire for peace and representation for the Egyptian people."