The adventures of Egypt's famous antiquities hunter in Paris

During Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's visit to Paris, France handed over five ancient Egyptian relics. But for Zahi Hawass, the flamboyant Egyptologist at the heart of the latest antiquities scrap, the mission is not yet over.


Gone are the days when young French writer André Malraux, who would go on to become France’s minister for culture, could chip off four sculptures from a Cambodian temple and ship them back to France. Almost a century later, the French government has officially returned five frescoed fragments from a Luxor tomb to Egypt, ending a row that had poisoned relations between Cairo and Paris.

The artefacts, the last of which was handed over to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, in Paris on Monday, are thought to belong to a more than 3,200-year-old tomb in the Valley of the Kings. They were illegally carried out of Egypt in the last century, before the Louvre museum in Paris acquired them in 2000 and 2003.

Enter the antiquities hunter

The fragments’ return home is largely the work of a 62-year-old Egyptian, Zahi Hawass, who has spent the better part of the past decade scouring the world on the hunt for relics from the Pharaoh’s age. “This news fills me with joy. I have sent a delegation from the Cairo museum to fetch them in Paris,” he told FRANCE in a phone interview from Cairo.

A controversial figure, Hawass has been at the helm of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities since 2002. As such, he alone can grant archaeologists the permits required to carry out excavations in his country.

A few years back he embarked on a mission to repatriate some of the artefacts from Ancient Egypt that are currently held in Western museums. On his website, Hawass boasts of having recovered some 5,000 works of art that had been disseminated across the world. To lay his hands on the Louvre’s relics, he went so far as to withdraw Egypt’s collaboration with the landmark Parisian museum.

In a statement released on Monday, Sarkozy said France was “committed to fighting the illegal trafficking of works of art". But in an interview with FRANCE, a source at the French culture ministry, who wished to remain anonymous, said Hawass’s move to withdraw Egyptian collaboration with the Louvre was tantamount to blackmail.

He also noted that France was careful to point out that it was handing over – and not returning – the fragments. “A return would have implied a theft, whereas the Louvre bought the fragments in good faith – even though they had initially been taken out of Egypt illegally,” he noted.

Recovering Egypt’s finest art

Hawass has recently repeated his demand for the British Museum to return the famous Rosetta Stone, which helped French scientist Jean-François Champollion decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics more than two centuries ago.

Cairo’s famous antiquities hunter has also lobbied for the return of a 3,500-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti, wife of the famous Pharaoh Akhenaten, on show at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Hawass is set to discuss the matter with a representative of the Neues in Cairo later this month. “Negotiations with Germany have only just begun,” he said.

Nor will the Louvre’s recent gesture of goodwill spare it from future harassment. For Hawass, the return of the frescoes is just the beginning. “We will officially request the return of six major works currently in France, including the famous Dendera zodiac [deemed one of Ancient Egypt’s most valuable objects and also housed in the Louvre],” he told FRANCE

Hawass’s persistent demands have irritated some officials in Paris. “There was a time when he even wanted the obelisk on Place de la Concorde [in Paris]! We cannot empty all of France’s museums just to please him,” said the source at the French culture ministry. Concerning the Dendera zodiac, he added, “We are protected by the UNESCO convention [an international text, signed in 1972, that details the rules governing ownership of artworks acquired through fraud].”

The hidden agenda

Hawass has more than one trick up his sleeve. In a bid to pile the pressure on Paris, London and Berlin, he has announced plans to host an international conference on the return of artworks to their rightful owners some time next year. “The idea,” he said, “is to raise awareness of the issue and draw up a list in which each country can name the antiquities it wants back.” Italy and Greece will no doubt be invited.

Critics say the archeologist’s zeal conceals a hidden agenda, with some suggesting he has set his eyes on the post of culture minister. But one thing is certain: Hawass is hoping the future Grand Egyptian Museum, which is set to open on the Giza plateau between 2011 and 2012, will house the most beautiful works of art from Ancient Egypt – including those that are now abroad.

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