Met returns stolen Egyptian art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced this week that it will return a fragment of Egyptian sculpture to its homeland. Unlike the bust of Nefertiti or the recently returned frescoes that the Louvre gave up, the Egyptians weren’t calling for its return for months or years. In fact, the Met bought the item from a collector with the specific intent of repatriating it.

The move is being seen as an olive branch offered by the Met’s new director Thomas Campbell, and another victory for Egyptian head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, who’s been getting tough with museums who own stolen Egyptian artifacts.

The artifact is a fragment of a naos, a shrine in the holy of holies of an Egyptian temple. It was dedicated to the 12th dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat I, who ruled from 1991 to 1962 BC, and was taken from a temple at Karnak, shown here.

History and art buffs face huge temptation when they enter an antiquities shop. Beautiful works of art and evocative everyday items from ancient civilizations are available for purchase, but this history and art buff has always resisted temptation. Much of what you see is either fake or stolen (witness the large numbers of Iraqi and Afghani artifacts on sale these past few years) and purchasing them encourages the destruction of irreplaceable archaeological sites by artifact hunters.

Once in Palmyra, Syria, a guy tried to sell me some “Roman” coins made of aluminum! Unfortunately the fakes are not always so easy to detect, as there’s a major worldwide industry making new things look old. Even if they are real artifacts, there’s a good chance they were stolen sometime in the past.

So congratulations to the Met and Dr. Hawass for a job well done. It’s a shame the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is such a mess, but Dr. Hawass is working on fixing that too.

Photo courtesy of mikescrivener from the Gadling Flickr pool. Check out his really cool series from Egypt here.