Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 July 2008
Issue No. 904
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Wrapping up smuggled goods

Six months after its establishment, the National Committee to Return Smuggled Antiquities has convened for the first time. Nevine El-Aref attended the meeting

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Nefertiti; the Rosetta Stone

The Ministry of Culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) have been at the forefront of a campaign since 2002 to stamp out the trade in artefacts illegally smuggled from Egypt and bring them back home. To put the campaign into effect, the SCA has created a new department in its administrative body, the National Committee to Return Smuggled Antiquities (NCRSA), to list all the objects that have been illegally smuggled out of the country together with those missing from archaeological storehouses and museums. It also traces all reports provided by Egypt's embassies and consulates abroad of possible infringements of the antiquities law, and from time to time it checks the sale catalogues of well known auction houses such as Bonhams and Christies.

By following these measures the SCA has succeeded in recovering 3,000 artefacts over the last six years. Of these, 619 items came from Heathrow airport in London, 398 from Geneva and two from Basel, seven statues from Italy, a unique, ancient Egyptian relief from Belgium, and others from the United States, Holland, Germany, France and Canada.

However, three main obstacles still stand against the return of all Egypt's stolen and illegally smuggled antiquities. The limited time between learning of the sale of a smuggled object and the auction sometimes means it cannot be prevented from entering at the proper time, and it is difficult to provide the paperwork that proves the Egypt nation owns an object since most of the smuggled pieces are from illicit excavations and are not archaeologically documented. Some countries abroad do not have local laws condemning the antiquities trade.

To bridge the obstacles, facilitate the SCA's mission to return Egypt's smuggled heritage and to coordinate all the efforts to reach this goal, the NCRSA was created and formed last December by a decree from the prime minister. The committee, headed by SCA's Secretary-General Zahi Hawass, consists of representatives from all the authorities concerned: the ministries of information, foreign affairs, international cooperation and justice as well as the SCA's legal consultant and representative from national security and the prosecutor-general. Two public figures with an interest in archaeology, Nabil El-Arabi, Egypt's permanent representative in UNESCO, and Abdel-Raouf El-Ridi, head of Egypt's Council for Foreign Relations, are also on the committee.

The SCA's legal consultant Ashraf El-Ashmawi told Al-Ahram Weekly that events were now moving forward. "The SCA has bridged the last obstacle by signing bilateral agreements with several foreign countries in the field of recovering stolen cultural heritage or illegally smuggled [items], as well as exchanging security information in the field and facilitating all procedures required to return these objects," El-Ashmawi said. He explained that Egypt had already signed agreements with Italy, Cyprus, Denmark, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Jordan, Peru and Switzerland, and endeavours were currently taken to sign agreements with the US, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Hawass says the NCRSA has two missions to accomplish on the international and local levels. On the international level, he says, the committee will call all foreign nations and states to halt the trade in antiquities and encourage all nations to participate in the 1972 UNESCO convention, which declared such trade as a crime. It will also have direct contact with other countries to discuss such issues, as well as collaborating with UNESCO in an attempt to promote the idea that cultural heritage is a shared patrimony. This in its turn will put pressure on all countries to tighten security in the antiquities trade and among traders. The NCRSA will also have connection with all those in direct contact with smuggled antiquities, including auction houses and Interpol, in order to shorten the time taken for paperwork.

On the local level, the NCRSA will raise the awareness of Egyptians for their heritage and its importance through history. This will be implemented through establishing seminars and open discussions highlighting such subjects, as well as organising a touring archaeological exhibition to visit towns in Egypt and publishing a periodical newsletter.

During its first meeting NCRSA members discussed several issues, among which was Egypt's participation in the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law convention. The institute, known as UNIDROIT, is an independent intergovernmental organisation whose purpose is to study needs and methods for modernising, harmonising, and coordinating private international law, in particular commercial law between states, and to draft international conventions to address these needs. Set up in 1926 as an auxiliary organ of the League of Nations, the institute was re-established in 1940 (following the demise of the League of Nations) on the basis of a multilateral agreement, the UNIDROIT Statute. Its seat is in Rome, Italy.

Membership of UNIDROIT is restricted to those states that accede to the UNIDROIT Statute. UNIDROIT's 61 member states are drawn from five continents and represent a variety of legal, economic, and political systems as well as different cultural backgrounds.

Over the years UNIDROIT has prepared international conventions adopted by diplomatic conferences convened by its member states. These have been:

- Convention relating to a Uniform Law on the International Sale of Goods (The Hague, 1964).

- Convention relating to a Uniform Law on the Formation of Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (The Hague, 1964).

- International Convention on Travel Contracts (Brussels, 1970).

- Convention providing a Uniform Law on the Form of an International Will (Washington, D.C., 1973).

- Convention on Agency in the International Sale of Goods (Geneva, 1983).

- UNIDROIT Convention on International Financial Leasing (Ottawa, 1988).

- UNIDROIT Convention on International Factoring (Ottawa, 1988), UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (Rome, 1995).

- Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment (Cape Town, 2001).

- Protocol to the Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment on Matters Specific to Aircraft Equipment (Cape Town, 2001).

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