During a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy handed back the last of five stolen Egyptian relics that ended up in a French museum. The handover closes only one chapter in an international dispute over the recovery of ancient artifacts.
At issue are 3,000-year-old relics taken from a wall painting of an ancient Egyptian tomb. The Louvre Museum in Paris had purchased the objects a few years ago, apparently believing they had been acquired legally. But Cairo's antiquities department argued they had been stolen. In October, it cut off ties with the Louvre in protest.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy handed back the last of the relics to visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a luncheon meeting in Paris. But there are plenty of other antiquities disputes that remain unresolved, among them; Egyptian authorities want the British Museum to hand over the Rosetta Stone and a museum in Berlin to relinquish a bust of the ancient Egyptian queen, Nefertiti.
Greece wants the British Museum to return the so-called "Elgin Marbles," which are sections of the Parthenon removed in the 19th century by a British aristocrat. Iraq has complained of antiquities looted from its Museum in Baghdad and during illegal excavations.
An official who deals with cultural property issues at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Edouard Planche, says the battle over antiquities involves many countries.
"Particularly the countries where there is a very rich architectural heritage," said Edouard Planche. "So if it is Mesopotamia, Egypt, Latin American countries where you have a huge, pre-Colombian heritage. But also countries where there is a rich religious heritage, there is a huge problem of looting of churches in some countries of Latin America. And on the other side, all the countries where you have huge museums, huge collectors."
Planche says a number of artifacts have been returned.
"There are a lot of cases resolved by bilateral discussions between the countries involved and this is a very good thing, to find a settlement of this issue on a bilateral cases," he said.
But Planche says an unknown number of international disputes over artefacts remain unresolved, despite U.N. conventions over ownership and restitution. UNESCO is trying to mediate and establish rules for settling the most difficult cases.