June 28, 2019

Interview with Shaaban Abdel-Gawad - Head of the Egyptian Department of Repatriation

Shaaban Abdel-Gawad
By Edgar Tijhuis 

When a civil war starts in a country, everyone and everything pays a price, including heritage.  In response to this ARCA initiated its Minerva Scholarship in 2015 in order to allow heritage professionals from the conflict countries of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen to train with us as a means of analysing criminal behavior which affect the security of movable cultural heritage during times of conflict.  This ARCA scholarship has allowed participants from Middle East source countries to come to Amelia for ten weeks and to learn from ARCA instructors as well as share their experiences with other heritage peers.  Minerva scholar's time in Italy also serves to build capacity between source and market country experts as they also on hand to share their own very valuable insight and experience in protecting their country's heritage, oftentimes under extremely difficult conditions.  

This year, in 2019, with funding obtained through a successful crowdfunding campaign, ARCA has been able to extend its Minerva scholarship initiative to an important post-conflict country, Egypt. During our 11th year of producing training programs we are pleased to have welcomed Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, as our first Minerva scholar from Cairo. To hear more about him, and his plans during his time in Italy, I sat down with him at one of the local coffee bars in Amelia, right in front of the old Medieval gate, which overlooks some of the city's Neolithic walls which circle the old town in order to ask him a few questions about his work and career.


Can you tell me something about your work in Egypt?

In Egypt, I am the head of the antiquities repatriation department. The department was founded in 2002 and I have been the department's head for the last four years. Since the start in 2002 over 10.000 pieces have been repatriated, most of them in the last four years. We work in different ways to achieve these results and to protect our heritage as best as possible. First of all, we collaborate with the authorities in market countries, for example through bilateral agreements like the 2010 agreement with Switzerland concerning the illicit import and transit of antiquities.  Also through the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States, the first of its kind for the US with a Middle Eastern country. Under these agreements and other bilateral and formal agreements we have also collaborated with Italy, France, Switzerland, Spain, and the UAE, and when objects are seized abroad, we check all documents and decide what can and should be done.


Images of the sarcophagus recovered from Kuwait in 2018
Furthermore, we have several officers who systematically scan all planned sales of all major auction houses, online platforms like Ebay, Facebook and other channels that can be used to sell antiquities these days.  Online we find many fakes, but between all the fakes, there are also real antiquities that are sold illegally. An example of this is the case of the relic that was recently offered for sale at a London auction. The relic — a tablet carved with the cartouche of King Amenhotep I — has been recovered by Egypt, after the websites of international auction halls were scoured.


Can you tell me more about the rules concerning antiquities from Egypt?

Tablet from Saqqara recovered from Switzerland
Well, one needs to go back in time a bit to at least 1911. * In that year the first Egyptian law on antiquities was adopted. It said, among other things, that foreign excavation missions could take half of the excavated objects out of Egypt. In 1951, a new law was adopted. ** Under this law export licences were required for every single object leaving Egypt and unique objects were never allowed to leave the country. Finally, in 1983 the current antiquities law was introduced. Under this law, antiquities cannot be exported anymore from Egypt.***

The coffin of Nedjemankh is a gilded ancient Egyptian coffin
from the late Ptolemaic Period (First Century B.C.E) .
Are there any recent examples of repatriation of antiquities to Egypt? 

There are many and I will mention a few. After the relic in London in January of this year, we had the case of the gold-sheathed coffin from the 1st century BC. It was recovered in the United States where it had become part of the collection of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. According to a statement by the museum which purchased the coffin, inscribed with the name Nedjemankh, a priest of the ram-god Heryshef, in July 2017. Per the investigative work of the Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, the museum learned that it had received a false ownership history, fraudulent statements, and fake documentation, including a forged 1971 Egyptian export license for the coffin. The museum handed the coffin over to the authorities after evidence showed that it was looted from Egypt in 2011.

In February of this year, another case was handled by Shaaban. Egypt’s embassy in Amsterdam received a 2500-2000 B.C.E Pharaonic limestone statue of a standing man with hieroglyphic marks on the right arm.  The object had been consigned to an auction house in the Netherlands and was scheduled to be sold at the European Fine Art Fair in Amsterdam.  The Ministry of Antiquities, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, succeeded in proving Egypt’s ownership of the archaeological piece and its illegal removal from the Saqqara area of Egypt sometime in the 1990s.

This month, in an important case which is still developing, the Egyptian authorities are working to stop the auction of a quartzite sculpture of Tutankhamun through Christie’s auction house in London.  This important piece is scheduled to go up for bidding in early July and the Egyptian authorities have raised concerns that the object may have been stolen, possibly from Karnak, an extraordinary complex developed over more than 1,000 years ago made up of sanctuaries, temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings near Luxor. 

While it remains uncertain whether the Egyptian authorities will be able to successfully claim the object back, Shaaban and his team are diligently pursuing leads and have pointedly asked the auction house to provide the Egyptian authorities with all of the documentation they were given by the consignor in furtherance of the sale.

So far Christie's has continued to state the object is legitimate but has withheld the requested documentation.

Tablet recovered from Australia
How did you hear about ARCA and the Minerva Scholarship? 

When I was in Sudan for an UNESCO workshop Effective implementation of the 1970 Convention for the prevention of illicit traffic of cultural property and of the UNESCO 2015 Recommendation on museums and collections in the Cluster countries I met Samer Abdel Ghafour. Samer completed the ARCA program in 2015 as a Minerva scholar from Syria before moving on to consult with the UNESCO Secretariat within the Section for Movable Heritage and Museums, at the Unit for the 1970 Convention. So I applied and in the end was chosen to come to Italy.

From Cairo to Amelia, that must be a big change….

Yes, it surely is. Cairo is a city with around 20 million inhabitants and Amelia a little town. But actually, I grew up in a village in Egypt and worked a lot at archaeological sites outside the cities. Italian life is Mediterranean, and in many ways similar to our culture in Egypt. The people in Amelia are very friendly and welcoming, and they ‘talk with their hands’ like we do in Egypt. There is even an Egyptian shop in Amelia! Furthermore, I enjoy the company of the ARCA staff and my fellow participants in the program, who come from all over the world. I think it’s great that this special town was chosen to host the program.

Do you see any similarities between Italy and Egypt? 

Yes, there are some interesting parallels between our countries. While we are both source countries of antiquities, we also play a role in educating other countries. We have helped countries like Libya, Uzbekistan, China, Yemen and Iraq to deal with the problem of antiquities looting. And we have seized objects from Italy in Egypt, as well as objects from several other countries that went through Egypt as a transit country.

What do you expect to learn during the program? 

I expect to learn how other countries work in this field, learn more about the laws regulating the antiquities trade and establish an international network for the future.

Ancient model of a boat, 2000 BC, recovered from Italy
More about Minerva Scholarships….

ARCA's Minerva scholarship is set aside to equip source country professionals with the knowledge and tools needed to build or improve heritage protection capacity at their home institutions and to advance the education of future generations. Scholarships are awarded through an open, merit-based competition, subject to available funding.

Accepted candidates must be able to speak and write, in English, at a university level proficiency. Those who do not, cannot be considered as all courses are taught in English. Beneficiaries of the Minerva will be granted a full tuition waiver to ARCA’s intensive professional development postgraduate program which runs annually in Amelia, Italy.

For further information about this multidisciplinary program and/or to request a prospectus/Minerva application form please if you are from a conflict or post conflict country, please write to us in English at education @ artcrimeresearch.org.

* Finalized on 12/6/1912 Law nr. 14 established that all antiquities found in Egypt belonged to the State, and forbade the selling of them, unless they were already part of a collection or coming from legal excavations, recognised by the State.  This law prohibited the export of antiquities from Egypt to other countries, except through a special license which only the Antiquities Department was entitled to grant or withhold.  This article further stipulated that any antiquity, illicitly removed from the territory was subject to seizure and confiscation. 

**Finalized on 31/10/51 Law nr. 215 amended by laws nr. 529 of 1953 and nr. 24 of 1965 enacted provisions which made penalties harsher for the theft and smuggling of antiquities. The law prohibited taking antiquities out of Egypt unless there were multiple items similar to them, and then solely with the approval of the Department of Antiquities, who meeting by a committee formed of museum personnel in the presence of a representative of the department of customs, could issued a license approving an object's exportation.  Failure to have obtained such a license implies that the antiquity in question was stolen or smuggled from Egypt.

***Enacted 06/08/1983 Law nr. 117 of 1983, emended in 2003 abolished completely all export of antiquities outside of Egypt.


Edgar Tijhuis is Academic Director at ARCA and visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana. He is responsible for the postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection. Since 2009, Edgar Tijhuis has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program

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