Egyptian authorities recently scored a victory in the return of an ancient artifact. The sarcophagus of Imhesy, a man from pharaonic times, was intercepted in Miami, Florida by an alert U.S. customs agent. Its provenance and final destination were unclear.
But Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, says “museums are the main source for buying stolen artifacts. If museums stopped ... the theft will be less.” Hawass says 95 percent of museums agreed to stop, but five percent remain holdouts.
“They began to buy stolen artifacts without telling anyone,” he said, “and they do hide the artifacts in the basement of the museum."
At a conference hosted by Hawass in Cairo this week, delegations from around the world vowed to speak with one voice to try to get national treasures back.
But as Peru has found out, it is not just theft that can cause a rift between nations and museums.
Peru's Undersecretary for Cultural Foreign Policy, Liliana Cino, said topping her wish list is the return of the treasures of Machu Picchu, the Incan city re-discovered a century ago. Artifacts found at the site were taken to the U.S. for study at Yale University's Peabody Museum. Ambassador Cino said the items were given as a loan, and that “we really hope Yale will keep its word and give our things back.”
Yale has argued it returned the borrowed items, and it rightfully owns the ones it still has.
Some museums holding disputed artifacts argue the items are too fragile to transfer. Others say that some pieces are so iconic, for example the Rosetta Stone, they belong to the world.
The head of Nigeria's Museum and Monuments Commission, Yussef Abdullah Usman, finds that a false argument.
"We are not saying these things should not be enjoyed by everyone,” he said, “but I think they will be better understood if they are exhibited within the cultural milieu in which they were actually created."
Nigeria is seeking the return of several objects, including the Benin Bronzes, taken out by British forces more than 100 years ago and now scattered among collections in Europe and America.
Egypt, more specifically Hawass, is the driving force behind repatriation efforts, with the country being one of the main victims of cultural theft. The antiquities chief says he hopes the conference is the first of many.
There is no shortage of antiquities still in Egypt, from the pyramids of Giza, to the extensive collection on display at the Egyptian museum in Cairo. But the return of any artifact taken without consent is a matter of national pride.
Hawass, an outsized character who encourages comparison to movie archaeologist Indiana Jones, says it’s the most rewarding part of the job.
"People can think that the best moment in the life of an archaeologist is actually to discover something,” he said at the handover of the Imhesy sarcophagus, “but for me, the best thing is to return something to Egypt."
The Egyptologist has gone to unusual lengths to make that happen - from threatening to cut off access to archeological sites, to telling those he deems an unrightful owner that the object holds an ancient curse.