Egypt urges states to cooperate on artifact return

A visitor looks at exhibits inside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo April 7, 2010. REUTERS/Tarek Mostafa

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt and other states which say artifacts have been illegally taken abroad should work together and list items they want returned from Western museums, Egypt’s top archaeologist said on Wednesday.

Zahi Hawass, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, was speaking to representatives from 21 countries, some like Greece and Syria, seeking the return of artifacts and others like the United States which have returned stolen antiquities.

“Museums are the main source for stolen artifacts. If they stop (buying stolen artifacts) the theft will be less,” Hawass told delegates who also included representatives from China, Libya, Peru, Chile, Nigeria and Italy.

Hawass has been pushing to repatriate some major pharaonic treasures Egypt says were plundered by foreign powers, including the Rosetta Stone now in the British Museum and Queen Nefertiti’s bust from Berlin’s Neues Museum.

“We have good cooperation with other countries. We have had artifacts returned from Spain, Italy but the number one country that has returned artifacts is the United States,” Hawass told the two-day conference in Cairo.

One of the conference aims was to ensure implementation of a 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convention under which countries agreed measures to prevent the illegal export of national treasures.

“There is a real problem of antiquities trafficking through theft, colonialism and the negative role some foreign missions play,” Ayman Slaiman, from the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums, told Reuters.

Greece is seeking the return of stone sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features taken from the Parthenon in Athens by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the 19th century during Ottoman rule, which now reside in the British Museum.

“It is not a question of legality but of goodwill and that cannot fall under a paragraph of law,” said Elena Korka, a delegate from Greece’s Culture Ministry.

Reporting by Reuters Television, writing by Marwa Awad, editing by Paul Casciato