Treasure hunting: from Egypt to auction houses

Egyptians like to joke you can dig anywhere and turn up something ancient, even if it’s just pottery or a statuette. In a country with more than 5,000 years of civilization buried under its sands, illegal digs have long been a problem.

Since 2011, when the popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year regime, the number of illegal digs has ballooned. But if the journey of the artifacts begins in Egypt, it ends up in European and American auction houses.

gulf“The origin of looting is the trade market. If private buyers continue creating a demand for objects, looting will continue and traders will find opportunities for passing objects from Egypt to relevant persons abroad. We need to see “thieves” as part of a complex story. They loot because they can and because it pays off, Richard Bussmann, Lecturer in Egyptian Archaeology/Egyptology at UCL (University College London), told the Baltic Review.

Paradoxically, objects are protected by the thieves, because they make money from them, and also preserved by the collectors. According to academics what is really going missing by the day is the archaeological and historical context of the artifacts. With a continuous demand, the supply is unlikely to subside.

dr-richard-bussmann
Richard Bussman

“We should be careful with judging people for a situation largely created by the art market outside Egypt and by the colonial past of Egyptian Archaeology keeping the majority of the population away from the pre-Islamic heritage. However, understanding the reasons for looting is not identical with excusing it,” Bussmann told us.

According to satellite images from before and after the revolution show a marked increase in looter holes. Fortune hunters pick spots just outside major archaeological sites in hope that treasures can be found some distance beyond their parameters. Illegal digging has taken place near the Great Pyramids in Giza and the grand temples of the southern city of Luxor.

As culture vultures continue pillaging Egypt’s landmark sites, attempts are being made to clamp down on the thefts with more stringent laws. But as the problem extends beyond Egypt’s national borders, a collective effort must be ensured to curb the illegal trade in art and artifacts.

Bibbi Abruzzini
Bibbi Abruzzini is a foreign correspondent for the BALTIC REVIEW and international news agencies in South Asia. She is Italian, grew up in Brussels and has reported from several countries, including Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Croatia, France, India, Italy, Lebanon, Nepal, Tunisia,Turkey and the US - writing largely about social and development issues.