The Egyptian curse

By Zahi Hawass

Zahi HawassI believe that men like Frederick Schultz, whom a New York judge convicted of stealing and dealing in stolen Egyptian antiquities and sentenced to imprisonment for a term of 33 months and a fine of $50,000, are the real "Egyptian curse". They destroy Egyptian monuments and erase segments of the historical record.

I was impressed that the American courts took such strong action. With the help of Britain's Scotland Yard they thoroughly investigated the crime, examined the evidence, and identified letters that had been sent from a dealer in Egypt to Schultz and other dealers in England. In the end, the New York federal district court labeled him "no different from any other thief".

I hope that the rest of the 22 people involved in the case will also be brought to justice. Theirs is a crime against history. Every time an antiquity is stolen, we lose a vital piece of evidence, a part of the world's cultural heritage.

I recall the time I entered the FBI building in New York and saw the limestone reliefs that had been chopped off the walls of an Old Kingdom tomb in Saqqara and been smuggled out of the country. I wondered how anyone could carry out such desecration for money. While I personally think that anyone involved in the violation of our monuments should be executed, I would like to mention four people who deserve recognition for their role in apprehending the thieves.

The first is Assistant US Attorney Marcia Isaacson from the district attorney's office in New York. A few years ago I received a call from her asking how she could obtain a copy of the Egyptian Antiquities Law, and how she could locate officials who could go to New York to testify. I gave her the phone number of Gaballa A Gaballa, then secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). Ever since I took over that post I have continued to work closely with her. She is extremely efficient and always makes sure of the facts.

The second person is Egypt's Consul-General in New York Mahmoud Allam, a dynamic personality. He found a lawyer to represent Egypt, and followed the development of the case day by day. We also need to thank two Egyptologists who are good friends of mine and have done a great deal to protect Egyptian heritage: Brooklyn Museum curator Edna Russeman and Betsy Brian, a professor of Egyptology at Johns Hopkins University. Both were decisive in their identification of and opinion about the stolen objects.

However, one American Egyptologist supported Schultz, telling the court that, "If any artifact leaves its context, it loses its value." Fortunately the judge did not take what he said into consideration. The SCA has decided not to cooperate with him in the future. We found evidence, too, that another person, a British Egyptologist, was involved with Schultz in the identification of objects and that he knew he was dealing with stolen artifacts. Again, the SCA has decided that he cannot work in Egypt in the future.

Last week we retrieved from New York a limestone relief depicting a man with his wife and son holding geese. Another three pieces are still being held at the FBI offices. One is a granite head that some scholars believe is a representation of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, while others say it is the head of Akhenaten. The second piece is another Old Kingdom relief, and the third a statue of a hawk.

Every day we discover artifacts that have been stolen from Egypt. For example, an exquisite pink granite block with a relief of the head of the god Hapi was about to be auctioned at Christies when it was identified as having come from the Temple of Behbeit Al- Hagar in the Delta. Another block, clearly stolen from the same site, is on display in a museum in the United States. The curators have already been approached with a view to having the artifact returned to Egypt.

More is the pity that there is no real "curse of the mummies" to cast its spell on the looters of Egyptian antiquities.

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