Egypt's antiquities chief asks for return of museum artifacts

Thursday, April 22, 2010

NEW YORK -- Egypt's antiquities chief, speaking at a preview of a King Tut exhibition, on Wednesday renewed his attacks on the museums he claims have refused to return artifacts that rightfully belong in Egypt.

"We're going to fight to get these unique artifacts back," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, at the New York preview of the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," an exhibition that has traveled to five other U.S. cities and London.

Hawass said he had a wish list of objects he wants returned. He singled out several museums, including the Saint Louis Art Museum, which he said has a 3,200-year-old mummy mask that was stolen before it was acquired by the museum.

Last week, he said he turned over to Homeland Security "all the evidence that I have to prove that this mask was stolen, and we have to bring it back."

On Wednesday, museum spokeswoman Jennifer Stoffel, said the institution "had correspondence with Hawass in 2006 and 2007 and has not heard anything on the matter since."

At the time, she said the museum shared information with Hawass on the mask's provenance and said "we would do the right thing ... if there was something that refuted the legitimacy of the provenance."

The St. Louis museum has said it bought the mask from an art dealer in the United States in 1998 after checking with authorities and the international Art Loss Register to see if it had been stolen. It said it also approved the purchase with the Egyptian Museum.

Over the centuries, thousands of Egyptian antiquities have been taken out of Egypt -- some stolen, some removed by famed archaeologists. Many are now housed in the world's greatest museums.

New York is the final stop for the Tut exhibition, which opens Friday. It is being shown at the Discovery Times Square Exposition -- a venue Hawass on Wednesday called "too commercial."

He said he wished it was the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

King Tut "deserves to be at the Met, and not in this hall," Hawass said.

The Met "has always provided us with information," he said earlier.

A blockbuster exhibition on the boy-king was first shown at the Met in 1979.

"We're delighted that the Tut material is back in New York," said Met spokeswoman Elyse Topalian. "The Met had discussions about the possibility of being a venue for the exhibition" but was unable to house it because "of the financial concerns that accompanied it," which included charging a separate fee for the exhibition along with its regular museum admission, she said.

The admission to the Tut exhibition is $27.50 for adults, with a portion going to fund antiquity conservation efforts in Egypt.

Topalian also said that the Met would not have had any curatorial oversight over the exhibition.

The current Tut exhibit features about 130 objects -- more than twice the number in the 1979 show -- including more than 50 of Tut's burial objects. It includes a golden diadem inlaid with colored glass and semiprecious stones that was found still on the head of the mummy when Howard Carter discovered Tut's tomb in 1922. The crown was not part of the 1979 exhibition.

King Tut's chariot also is a new addition; it will be the first time that it will travel outside Egypt. Its arrival at the exhibition has been delayed by the volcanic ash that suspended flights from Europe. It will be installed within the month.

The current show provides new information about the life and death of Tutankhamun and his ancestors based on recent discoveries made through DNA and CT scans.

For example, the tests revealed that Tut fractured a leg shortly before he died, and the accident likely occurred on the chariot, said exhibition curator David P. Silverman.

"It's a traveling chariot he used in military campaigns and hunting," he said. "One of the wheels was replaced in ancient times, probably after an accident."

Hawass also announced that a set of four foundation deposits -- similar to time capsules -- and a limestone fragment with a text indicating a tomb was hidden nearby were recently discovered in the Valley of the Kings.

He said this discovery gave him hope he would soon find the tombs of Ankhesamun, Tut's wife, and that of Nefertiti, his stepmother.

The Valley of the Kings was used from about 1550 BCE to 1070 and contains 80 tombs.

Hawass also has made a request for the return of the Rosetta Stone, housed in the British Museum in London, and an ancient bust of Nefertiti, wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, at Berlin's Egyptian Museum.

He said the pieces would be displayed in the new Grand Museum in Cairo, slated to open in 2012.

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