In Hot Pursuit of Egypt's Lost Mummies ; A Recovery Campaign Has Sparked Debate over Objects That Museums Acquired before a 1970 Tightening of the Antiquities Trade

Article excerpt

Zahi Hawass is one part celebrity, one part investigator. Egypt's lead sleuth in the country's hunt to reclaim ancient antiquities has gained a reputation for often strong-arming curators and bullying museum directors. But while he's attracted critics in his hunt for Egypt's mummies and pharaonic masks, his hard-nosed techniques are indeed paying off.

Mr. Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, has recovered some 3,500 objects, including the Ramses I mummy from Atlanta's Michael C. Carlos Museum and an ancient sarcophagus from the chairperson of Chicago's electric utility, Exelon.

At home, his quest has broken up smuggling rings and will possibly increase punishments for illegal trading. Abroad, he's demanding that Boston's Museum of Fine Arts return the bust of Ankhaf, the Khafre pyramid builder, and the St. Louis Art Museum hand over a pharaonic mask.

In November, he warned France that if it didn't cooperate in the investigation of a Frenchman allegedly trying to sell hair from the Ramses II mummy, it would threaten bilateral relations with Egypt.

"If people are coming to Egypt, cutting inscriptions, and damaging our monuments, I have to fight them," Hawass says.

While there's certainly applause for Hawass's efforts, his campaign has sparked debate since many of the objects he seeks have been in museums long before a 1970 international convention tightened the ancient antiquities trade.

"These monuments are doing a real service to Egypt by being on display abroad. They encourage tourism, bring money to the country. They are a cultural ambassador and bringing them back, just to get them back, is not necessarily the best idea," says Egyptologist Kent Weeks.

What many experts don't agree on is whether Hawass can legitimately claim artifacts like the five iconic treasures from leading museums: the Rosetta Stone, the key to understanding ancient hieroglyphics, from London's British Museum; the legendary Bust of Nefertiti from Berlin's Egyptian Museum; the Denderah Temple Zodiac from the Louvre in Paris; Boston's Museum of Fine Arts bust of Ankhaf; and, the statue of Great Pyramid architect Hemiunu in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hilesheim, Germany.

Experts argue that these pieces were acquired decades ago when laws didn't prevent foreign visitors from taking artifacts home, that museums preserved these pieces and promoted Egyptian culture. "Egypt can't claim objects after 150 years. …