Mutual Art: 'Looted Art: Five Egyptian Treasures'

Published 11 October 2021 in Insights

Mutual Art

'Looted Art: Five Egyptian Treasures'

By Maya Garabedian

Mutual Art - Magazine

Published 8 October 2021


Some of the most important artifacts of the rich Egyptian history are held in Western museums. While hopes of repatriation are small, efforts are being undertaken and small successes achieved.

Artist unknown, Rosetta Stone, 196 BCE, carved grey and pink granodiorite stela on display in Room 4. Courtesy of the British Museum

It’s nearly impossible to address the topic of looted artworks and cultural artifacts without addressing the Rosetta Stone — a key piece in the establishment of the Louvre’s Department of Egyptian Antiquities. During Napoléon’s reign, he forged a campaign where military members, alongside scientists, archeologists, and more, pillaged the Middle Eastern and North African region, bringing back with them, among countless other works, the Rosetta Stone. It has remained outside of Egypt ever since, acquired by the British just after the turn of the 19th century and kept in the stronghold of the British Museum, where it remains today. Naturally, Egypt has long lobbied for the return of the stolen artifact, but to no avail.

The Rosetta Stone, a slab of carved granodiorite dating back to 196 BCE, is so significant due to the role it played in deciphering Ancient Egyptian language. Its inscription, a decree about King Ptolemy V, is written in three different scripts, ordered from top to bottom: hieroglyphs (the formal writing system of Ancient Egypt), Demotic (the common writing system of Ancient Egypt), and Ancient Greek. Prior to its discovery, no one knew how to read hieroglyphs whatsoever, but with scholars’ knowledge of Ancient Greek, they were able to work backwards and decipher the invaluable script. Such a crucial development led to the Rosetta Stone becoming one of, if not the most, famous object in the British Museum’s collection. However, the Rosetta Stone is not the only looted Egyptian treasure — far from it. Bits and pieces of Egypt’s history are scattered in museums around the world.

Artist unknown, Zodiac of Dendera, ca. 50 BCE, sandstone bas-relief. Courtesy of the Louvre Museum

Another spoil of Napoléon’s invasion of Egypt is the Dendera Zodiac, although France managed to keep this piece in its grasp. The work, a sandstone bas-relief depicting constellations, has great religious and historical significance. Before being removed by French military members, it was made into the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to the Egyptian god Osiris, known as the Temple of Hathor. It has been characterized as the only known map in existence that represents the ancient sky in its entirety. Scholars have concluded that this map also served as the basis for developing the astronomy systems we believe in today. While there is much controversy surrounding the dating of the work, so much so that the discourse itself has been given its own name, the “Dendera Affair,” the chapel’s construction began in the late Ptolemaic period, The Dendera Zodiac would likely have been created when the chapel’s construction began in the late Ptolemaic period. The relief is currently on display in the Louvre Museum.

In Germany, there are at least two looted works that Egypt would like to see back in its possession. One, the Bust of Nefertiti, is a more recognizable artifact, perhaps the most recognized bust of all time, and is more regularly a part of the repatriation conversation. This is, in part, due to the clear evidence that the piece was removed from its home country illegally. Originally crafted by Thutmose, the king’s favorite sculptor, in the 14th century, the bust was excavated by the German Oriental Company six centuries later, and was presented to the benefactor of the expedition, James Simon. He refused to display it publicly for more than a decade, likely due to his awareness of the legal and moral issues he would be up against. Egypt has been asking for its return since the 1920s from any and all German museums that have held it. It is currently housed in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

Artist unknown, Statue of Hemiuni, ca. 2570 BCE, limestone. Courtesy of The Giza Project at Harvard University

The lesser-known looted work in Germany is the Statue of Hemiunu, a life-size limestone statue also discovered in 1912 by the German Oriental Company. Hemiumu, who was the son of Prince Nefermaat and regarded as the architect behind the Great Pyramid of Giza, was buried alongside this statue of himself, where it remained until it was taken from his tomb. Some records indicate that the removal of this work may have been legal, which makes its existence at the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim all the more complex. A similar statement can be made of the Bust of Prince Ankhhaf, which is housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Similarly, it is a limestone sculptural portrait which was found within his tomb.

Artist unknown, Bust of Prince Ankhhaf, ca. 2520-2494 BCE, limestone, plaster, paint. Courtesy of The Giza Project at Harvard University

In the realm of repatriation, it is highly unlikely that world-renowned museums would ever part with their iconic main attractions, regardless of legality or moral question. However, there are still people who believe the fight is worth fighting. Zahi Hawass, a prominent Egyptian archaeologist and former Antiquities Minister, put together a team of experts last year in the hopes of repatriating all five of these Egyptian treasures currently held in Western museums: the Rosetta Stone (London, UK), the Dendera Zodiac (Paris, France), the Bust of Nefertiti (Berlin, Germany), the statue of Hemiunu (Hildesheim, Germany), and the Bust of Prince Ankhhaf (Boston, US). The goal, it seems, is to remind museums and museumgoers alike of the rich cultural and historical significance of looted works.

The timeliness of such a campaign matters — Western museums are more open to entertaining the possibility that the works they possess may not rightfully belong to them. But just because institutions may be willing to listen does not mean they are willing to act. Nonetheless, there is still hope for what is often referred to as a “soft approach,” where both parties, the looted and the looter, agree to voluntary returns of smaller works, avoiding lengthy, expensive, and often unresolved, certainly unsatisfactory court battles. While this is far from what countries like Egypt would wish to see happen in an ideal world, seeking colonial powers’ reckoning with the past and offering of reparations is no small ask — at least a “soft approach” means that steps are taken in the right direction.


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Image Credit: Thutmose, Bust of Nefertiti, ca. 1341 BCE, limestone, painted stucco, quartz, wax. Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin