The Changing Faces of the Egyptian Antiquities Market 

In the 17th and 18th centuries Empires collected Egyptian antiquities without restriction. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest in Egypt and Syria. Arguably, this was the beginning of Egyptology and Europe's zealous collecting. Thousands of Egyptian treasures were being shipped back to the Louvre as examples of Napoleon’s spoils of conquest. “The French artists of the day celebrated the occasion by putting their names to a petition in 1796 to the Directories: “ The French Republic by its strength and superiority of its enlightenment and its artists is the only country in the world that can give a safe home to these masterpieces (Greenfield 111).

Colonial rivalries, particularly between France and England in the 1800s were played out on Egyptian soil as thousands of antiquities poured into the British Museum and the Louvre. In 1835, upon the urging of the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion, Mehmed ‘Ali Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt, issued an ordinance widely considered to be the first piece of antiquities legislation in Egypt (Colla 101). The decree focused on the preservation and protection of Egypt’s Pharaonic history, issuing more stringent policies on the exportation of antiquities. The ordinance however, was mired by vague definitions of excavation, exploration, and antiquities, and ambiguous about grants and property rights (ibid 102).

It is important to note that the ordinance’s main concern was outlawing the destruction of European excavation sites by the peasants of Upper Egypt who’s looting practices were a form of income. In fact, “ The ordinance did not end European assertions that Europeans had a superior moral right to collect and export Pharaonic artifacts. If anything, the law only refocused the terms of the claim to Pharaonic patrimony” (ibid 103). The argument before 1835 was that Egyptians were largely indifferent to the antiquities that covered their country, now with the ambiguous ordinance and resulting corruption, Europeans claimed the Egyptians were largely unfit to care for their own antiquities.

In 1850, August Mariette was sent to Cairo by the Louvre to regulate excavations in Egypt as the director of the Egyptian Services of Antiquities, today’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. The same year Mariette directed the creation of a national Museum of Egyptian Antiquities at Bulak in Cairo, now the world’s largest museum of such objects. Mariette is often “credited with having stemmed the plunder and irregular sale of Egyptian antiquities” (Greenfield 98). But what is often not acknowledged is the fact that antiquities were still leaving Egypt by the thousands. Indeed, Mariette sent almost 6,000 objects to the Louvre during his time in Egypt (Waxman 71).

In 1912, the Antiquities Services enacted their first law to organize and regulate the sale of antiquities in Egypt. This was the same year that the Khawam Brothers, the oldest successively running antiquities dealership in the world, became certified to sell antiquities. Between 1912 and 1978, the Antiquities Services would review objects submitted for export permits (ibid 127). It was during this time period that Herbert Mayer, on a buying trip to Cairo in 1961, bought at least three of the Late Antique reliefs that make up the Picker Gallery’s collection. These three reliefs were confirmed by the Khawam Brothers to have been sold to Mayer. The rest of the seventeen reliefs are not confirmed, but most likely bought from the Khawam’s.

The 1960s, when Mayer bought his Late Antique reliefs, were a time when reputable dealers like the Khawam’s, educated in the study of Egyptology and experts in their field, were still active in Cairo. Dietrich von Bothmer, the former MET curator, would often come to the Khawam’s looking for objects to add to the MET’S renowned collection of Egyptian art (ibid 124). Roger Khawam remembers this period as a time when “the antiquities trade was a small circle of people who worked on a handshake and a reputation” (ibid 126).

In the early 1970s however, the antiquities market was radically changed. The protection of objects of historical and cultural significance had gained international attention after World War I. But it was not until the early 1970s that cultural property was defined and international regulations were enacted to protect such property. In 1970, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, commonly referred to as UNESCO, held the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. UNESCO defined ‘cultural property’ as “property, which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeological, prehistory, history, literature, art or science” (UNESCO, Article 1). In its recommendations, UNESCO stated that they recognized, “The illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property (ibid, Article 2). The recommendations resulting from the convention officially entered into force on April 24, 1972 (UNESCO). It was around this time that export permits were difficult, if not impossible to come by. In 1978, the Khawam Brother’s moved out of Cairo and opened shop in Paris. It no longer was feasible to keep a business in Cairo. In 1983, Egypt officially banned all exports.

Whether these UNESCO laws have done more harm than good to Egyptian antiquities is a common discussion among dealers like the Khawam’s, who believe the banning of all exports has only caused the market to be pushed underground. Worried that they will be accused of illegal purchases, museums no longer buy antiquities even if the object was excavated before the UNESCO laws were enacted. Private individuals willing to deal in illegal art buy these objects instead; such antiquities will never seen by the public (Waxman 124). On the other side of this argument is the autonomy that Egypt has rightfully gained. The standards issued by UNESCO have allowed Egypt to take full responsibility over the protection of objects that make up their country's rich and fascinating history. Though these laws are not perfect, they have finally untied Egypt from the colonial powers that had controlled the excavation and export of Egyptian antiquities for hundreds of years. Finally, Egypt has been given the power and legal right to preserve their own historical objects. What actions Egypt will take in regard to their antiquities will continue to be a subject of international interest.


Madeline Rankowitz, Class of 2013, Majoring in Art & Art History