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Metropolitan Museum Returns Antiquities Found in King Tut's Tomb to Egypt

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The famous mask from Tutenkhamun's tomb. The famous mask from Tutenkhamun's tomb. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has returned 19 objects to Egypt originally found in King Tutankhamun's tomb. Last November, the Met agreed to give back the artifacts after an internal museum investigation determined it had no right to the antiquities — mostly non-museum quality pieces, ranging from small fragments to a tiny bronze dog — in the first place. On Tuesday, the museum said it had shipped the objects to Egypt.

The objects were obtained from the estate of Howard Carter, an English archaeologist who excavated King Tut’s tomb. Through a system known as "partage," the finds of most excavations in Egypt are divided between Egypt and the archeologists who do the dig. But in the case of Carter's excavation, the Met determined that anything Carter found in the king’s tomb was to go to Egypt.

“Because of precise legislation relating to that excavation, these objects were never meant to have left Egypt, and therefore should rightfully belong to the government of Egypt,” said Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, in a statement issued last November.

The Met subsequently decided to return the 19 pieces to Egypt, where they will go on view in the new Grand Egyptian Museum set to open in Giza in 2012.

“It was the right thing to do,” said intentional art law expert Derek Fincham, who teaches at the South Texas College of Law. “We are so used to museums really digging in and refusing to return objects with troubling histories, that it can be surprising when one actually does the right thing.”

Fincham added that the objects, although interesting from an academic point of view, aren’t exactly priceless.

“I have a sense these are not objects that will be terribly missed,” he said.

The deal to return the antiquities to Egypt was negotiated by Zahi Hawass, the famed Egyptian archeologist and former Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. Hawass was removed from his post last month due to his ties to former President Hosni Mubarak.

Hawass, who is one of the few archeologists in the world who can boast both his own fashion label and Internet fan club, was known for his colorful personality and frequent appearances in the media, where he agitated for the return of Egyptian cultural property.

“He’s really willing to put himself out there and he’s willing to make a bit of a spectacle,” said Kimberly Alderman, an art law expert at the University of Wisconsin. “And because in a lot of these repatriation requests, they don't have a legal claim, it ends up being well, ‘Who's making the most noise?’ We’ll see in the coming months whether Egypt’s new government is able to replace him or not.”

However, Derek Fincham said that many archaeologists were not part of the Hawass fan club.

“There have been a lot of Egyptian archaeologists and others who have worked with the Culture Ministry who may be happy to see Zahi Hawass go,” he said. “He was a dynamic figure who attracted media attention and grabbed headlines, but those are not skills which an effective Culture Minister requires. And in some cases, like with respect to the Cleopatra’s Needle, those calls may have diminished his case for other legitimate repatriation and return,” referring to Hawass’ criticism of New York City’s upkeep of the 3,500 year-old Egyptian obelisk situated in Central Park.

Fincham pointed out that Hawass is also responsible for suing the St. Luis Art Museum for the return of an ancient mask. That case is still being litigated in federal court.

Kimberly Alderman said repatriating the antiquities is a smart move on the part of the Metropolitan Museum, since it may help it avoid jeopardizing the Met’s active excavations in Egypt.

“Egypt has in the past pulled excavation permits when museums would not cooperate with them on repatriation of objects that they have demanded returned,” said Alderman, citing an example when it wouldn't let the Louvre continue an excavation after the French museum refused to return some requested artifacts. “It’s a negotiation dance. The Met wants to keep doing its digs, and may be willing to give up these objects that are not the most economically valuable in the world.”

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