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Louvre gives in to demand of Zahi Hawas for the return of stolen artefacts. Is this the end of a story or the beginning?

According to press reports, France has agreed to return the the five ancient Egyptian frescos that Zahi Hawass claimed had been stolen from Egypt even though the French asserted they had bought them in “good faith”.
(http://news.bbc.co.uk http://www.google.com)

The question now is whether this is the end of a story or the beginning of a process that will involve other stolen Egyptian cultural objects. Zahi Hawass, an archaeologist by profession and the most famous Egyptologist of our times, has led the campaign to recover Egypt’s stolen treasures, including the bust of Nefertiti, now in the Altes Museum, Berlin and the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum, London. Also on his list are: the zodiac ceiling painting from the Dendera Temple, now in the Louvre, Paris, the bust of Ankhhaf (the architect of the Chephren Pyramid), and the statue of Hemiunu, nephew of the Pharaoh Khufu and builder of the largest pyramid, Great Pyramid at Giza. 

There are also other claims for restitution such as the Nigerian claim against the British Museum for the Benin bronzes. The Parthenon/Elgin Marbles which were acquired under dubious circumstances and are now in the British Museum also come to mind as examples of unresolved cases in an area one could have expected the Western States to show leadership by example.

Will the Western States appoint a committee to examine each request as soon as it is made or will they finally join the rest of the world, the United Nations and UNESCO and accept that it is wrong to steal the cultural property of others and agree in principle to return, at least, some of the thousands of cultural objects stolen in the colonial and imperialist days, not only from Egypt but from most African and Asia countries. If the case by case approach were to be adopted, it would take Egypt thousand years to recover many of the stolen objects which are adorning Western museums. Would Zahi Hawass and the Egyptians want to wait for that long? Western States should finally stop hiding behind baseless and weak arguments which can only delay demands. They should make their contribution to creating a better atmosphere on the cultural front.

In the meanwhile, Nigerians and others will no doubt draw the necessary lessons from the approach of Zahi Hawass to restitution. They would decide whether the so-called “quiet diplomacy” has any merit since it has not brought them any visible benefit in 50 years since independence. They may think that the issues of restitution are better brought out openly and articulated so that everybody knows who is serious and who is playing games. Zahi Hawass is certainly not playing any games. He wants Egypt’s artefacts back and he is getting them.

Kwame Opoku. 10 October,2009.

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