Monday, August 15, 2011

Egypt’s Desire for a Statue in Boston

The construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo has authorities seeking to bring back the most impressive items that have left the country. Yesterday’s story in the Boston Globe reveals some of the inner workings in the case of the bust of Prince Ankhhaf now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. It’s an interesting read, particularly if you are concerned with the movement to repatriate antiquities. Unlike some other cases, no one disputes the legality of Boston’s ownership.

In a smoky office a short drive from the Pyramids of Giza, Mohamed Saleh, once the director of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum and now the man in charge of the collections for a planned $550 million Grand Egyptian Museum, is asked how much he knows about the bust of Prince Ankhhaf. The precious 4,500-year-old statue, 20 inches tall, left Egypt decades ago and is now on prominent display at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Saleh nods, smiles, and opens his laptop. Just a few clicks, and the stoic ancient face pops onto his screen. Four words are all Saleh needs.

“It is a dream,’’ he says.

The dream is the idea of the Ankhhaf bust returning from Boston, where it has rested since 1927. The Egyptian government is demanding the statue’s return, and the MFA has refused.

But this conflict - one of many the MFA has faced over works in its permanent collection - has been further complicated by the recent tumult in the Egyptian government. And while some claims for ownership of works can be made on legal grounds, this one treads on murkier terrain. The bust of Ankhhaf was given to the MFA by a previous Egyptian government, so the current government has no legal case. Any appeal must be made on moral grounds: that the piece is part of Egypt’s patrimony, and belongs at home.

The story continues here, but you must go to the museum’s website for photos.

HT: Jack Sasson

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