The British Museum is to take on a new role to lead an international task force to fight the illicit trade in Egyptian and Nubian antiquities. The Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan has received a grant of £998,769 from the Cultural Protection Fund, which is run by the British Council in partnership with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. The project, entitled ‘Circulating Artefacts’ will see the creation of an online semantic database of Egyptian and Nubian antiquities in circulation on the international art market and in private collections. The Museum will employ a dedicated team of curators solely to identify looted ancient treasure. This is likely to have far-reaching implications for collectors, dealers, and other museums. Although focussing on Egyptian and Nubian antiquities, the database will be so configured that it could be used to monitor other geographic areas.
The project will receive widespread practical support from a variety of organisations, including law enforcement agencies, legal experts and, and most crucially, numerous representatives of the antiquities trade itself. Many auction houses, dealers, and dealers’ associations have endorsed the project and agreed to sharing images and metadata with the project for inclusion in the database, which will also make antiquities more accessible for research, especially within Egypt and Sudan. Priority will go to the documentation of objects seen in the trade since 1970, the year of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (by the protocols of which the British Museum abides). It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of looted artefacts in collections and in the marketplace that have yet to be identified.
The team will also be looking out for works currently on offer at auction houses, galleries, and on websites such as eBay without clear provenance. If there is evidence that could lead to an object’s recovery and repatriation, the British Museum will report the item to the appropriate law enforcement agency. The database, which includes both images and provenance research, will not be open to the public due to the legally sensitive nature of the material.
In addition, the project will offer on-the-job training and equipment to antiquities staff from the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt and the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) in Sudan. Twelve trainees will join the British Museum for 6-month periods to build skills in the documentation of circulating antiquities, and they will learn how to describe and research this type of material, with a particular focus on questions of provenance.
Awareness of the scale of looting has recently been re-enforced by the arrests and freezing of assets, including those of a former honorary consul of Italy in Luxor and the owners of a shipping company allegedly involved, arising out of a routine customs inspection in May 2017, when Italy's Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, better known as the Carabinieri T.P.C., in collaboration with the officials of the Customs Agency and the local Superintendency, had seized a reported 23,700 archaeological finds, all of which were believed to have come from ancient Egypt. The stash had been discovered inside a diplomatic shipping container, sent through the port of Salerno of the type used to transport household goods. The objects were believed to have come from an area on the edge of the western desert in the Minya province, located in central Egypt, 250 km south of Cairo. This artefact rich area is known to have ancient catacombs that date back to the late pharaonic period, which spans from 664 to 332 BC. The area has also been the subject to plunder and looting, which intensified after the country's revolution in 2011.