Friday, March 28, 2014

Thanks, But No Thanks

Deborah Lehr, the politically connected Chair of the Capitol Archaeological Institute (CAI), has spun her organization's narrative of what ails Egypt's cultural patrimony and what should be done about it on the Huffington Post website.

The heroes, of course, are archaeologists like Monica Hanna who is said to have single-handedly fought off armed looters raiding the Malawi Museum in Minya.  In contrast, the villains are shadowy  international "cultural racketeers" bent on stealing Egypt's antiquities and selling them to unscrupulous collectors abroad.

But Ms. Lehr is a very sophistocated woman who should know better.  Egypt's problems are of Egypt's own making.  The country has been effectively ruled by its military since the fall of its British-installed monarchy. The Arab Spring, which brought such great hope, quickly turned ugly.  There were free elections, but Egypt's first elected President from the Muslim Brotherhood quickly disappointed all those who hoped that Egypt would become the Arab World's first true democracy. Instead, what Egyptians got was the makings of an Islamic Dictatorship.  The military, using the cover of another popular uprising,  then reasserted itself and overthrew this freely elected leader.  Now, the country's highest ranking general has announced that he is taking off his uniform so he can become president.  Meanwhile, just like in bad old Egypt before the Arab Spring, hundreds of adherents of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood President have been condemned to death after show trials for rioting in none other than Minya, the site of the looted Malawi Museum.  None of these people appear to be shadowy international "cultural racketeers," but rather discontented supporters of their deposed President.  And what of the museum itself?  Though you would not know it from Ms. Lehr's opinion piece, some 800 of the 1,000 or so artifacts that were stolen have been recovered and returned to the museum.

And what of Ms. Lehr's prescriptions for this mess of Egypt's own making?  In brief, she assumes collectors, auction houses and the small businesses of the antiquities and numismatic trade will: (1) donate money to the Egyptian Cultural Bureaucracy through the CAI (despite widespread corruption in the country); (2) acquiesce to "emergency import restrictions" on Egyptian cultural artifacts that the AIA itself has admitted won't work and only hurt the legitimate trade in cultural artifacts of the sort widely collected here and abroad since the 19th c.; and (3) acquiesce in the convocation of a "Cultural Racketeering Summit" which would likely be used to justify a future "antique ivory" type ban in the transfer and sale of Egyptian antiquities.

Thanks, but no thanks.  While US Customs can and should interedict Egyptian cultural goods where there is some hard evidence they were recently stolen from Egyptian museums and archaeological sites, any "emergency" is entirely of Egypt's own making and American collectors, museums and the small businesses of the antiquities and numismatic trade should not be made to pay the price.

1 comment:

Wayne G. Sayles said...

Can't wait for the predictable response from Poland. If I'm not mistaken, our friend there had his own axe to grind with the establishment in Egypt (including archaeologists) when he went on that not-so-glorious dig there a while back. I wonder if he'll toss up the links to his blog posts about that fiasco? If he's lost them, I'd be happy to provide copies :-)