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Shifting Sands of Ancient Art Law

Heritage* Courts are starting to favor national patrimony over private property rights in the long-standing ownership rivalry over antiquities.


CAIRO — A lot has changed in the 15 years since a trove of ancient treasures disappeared from a southern Egyptian warehouse.

Courts around the world are beginning to recognize the ownership claims Egypt and other nations make on what they see as their cultural heritage, even when the claims are challenged by powerful collectors and dealers who say they go against long-standing assumptions about property rights.

"Things are improving," says Torkom Demirjian, owner of Ariadne Galleries in New York City and a 30-year veteran of the antiquities trade. "My organization is pro-preservation. We don't like to encourage clandestine digs. When we see something we believe is stolen, we will report it to the proper authorities."

Demirjian and other dealers use Art Loss Register, a company that tracks stolen antiquities, to check items offered for sale.

When a dealer in the Hague asked the London-based company what it knew about an Egyptian relief he'd been offered, Art Loss found an Interpol report in its computerized archives listing the statue as stolen. It was part of the stolen warehouse trove--a 20-inch-tall block of yellow stone with a carving of King Amenhotep III. The 18th Dynasty pharaoh was depicted kneeling in profile, his toes splayed like the petals of a lotus flower over a row of hieroglyphs.

The statue was returned to Egypt in May.

Art Loss didn't exist when the carving disappeared--the company was formed in 1991 by auction houses, art dealer organizations, insurers and a nonprofit art foundation. Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the company, said he has seen a slow but perceptible increase in interest in his pay-for-search service over the last decade.

Zahi Hawass, who holds the top archeological job in the Egyptian government as chief of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, is digging out descriptions of the other 54 pieces. Encouraged by the Amenhotep discovery, he wants to circulate the descriptions among dealers and museums.

The challenge remains enormous, though. Interpol, the international police network, says it is impossible to even track the volume of trade in stolen antiquities because so much of it is so far underground. Some pieces disappear straight from digs, before anyone can catalog or describe them, and into the hands of collectors who never risk showing them publicly.

But many involved in the study and preservation--and the buying and selling--of ancient art say that although the transformation is likely to be slow and fitful, it has begun.

In what often is portrayed as a clash of art and scholarship versus commerce, those who deal in antiquities are cast in the villain's role. The international art auction house Christie's cautions that it's not that simple.

"Private collections have often later become the core of public museums, and in our own time, private collectors continue to donate and lend pieces to museums. Most also allow access to the scholarly community," Christie's said in a statement from its New York offices.

There was a time, said Radcliffe of Art Loss, when virtually the only interest of art collectors and dealers was whether a piece was genuine. Questions about provenance--the trail of ownership--were considered too complex to address or to be of concern.

"They really couldn't have cared less who owned it," Radcliffe said.

Today they are being forced to care, partly because of the efforts of government officials such as Egypt's Hawass, who argues that to keep ancient art away from the country of its origin is "to destroy the culture of a country."

Hawass, well known in his previous position as the media-savvy curator of the Sphinx and Great Pyramid complex outside Cairo, took his new job in March with a characteristic splash. He sent letters to museums around the world informing them that he was establishing a central department to track missing antiquities.

"We expect that your museum will be most circumspect when acquiring any new ancient Egyptian pieces," he said in the letter.

Despite the stern tone, Hawass said he doesn't expect a fight. "I seek their help, and they will help," he said. "I believe they live, as we do, to protect Egyptian monuments."

Indeed, archeologists and museum officials around the world have been at the forefront of the campaign to focus attention on ownership. They argue that because dealers and collectors once asked so few questions, they encouraged tomb robbers who ripped objects out of context and destroyed any chance that they could be properly studied.

Asking--and acting when the answers are unsatisfactory--could help avoid embarrassing legal battles.

In 1995, U.S. Customs agents seized a delicately decorated gold phial--a vessel used for pouring libations in the 4th century in what is now Italy--that retired American financier Michael Steinhardt was trying to bring home from Europe.

Steinhardt had paid a Swiss dealer more than $1 million for the object and on his customs forms listed Switzerland as the country of origin.

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