Serendipity aids Egypt in struggle to recover stolen heritage

Wed Apr 23, 2014 2:09am EDT
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By Stephen Kalin and Tom Perry

CAIRO (Reuters) - When French Egyptologist Olivier Perdu saw a fragment of a pharaonic statue on display in a Brussels gallery last year, he assumed it was a twin of an ancient masterpiece he had examined in Egypt a quarter of a century earlier.

The reality was an even more remarkable coincidence: the fragment was part of the very same artifact - a unique 6th century B.C. statue hewn from pale green stone - that Perdu had received special permission to study in Cairo in 1989.

The statue, a 29 cm-high (11 inches) representation of a man wearing a pharaonic headdress and holding a shrine to Osiris, the god of the afterlife, was smashed by looters who broke into the Cairo Museum during the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

Its top portion had been missing since then.

"I was just astonished," Perdu told Reuters. "Through examining all the stains and irregularities I could conclude that it was indeed the same piece.

"What I had between my hands in Brussels was the object that I had studied in the Cairo museum in 1989."

Thanks to his chance encounter, the piece excavated in 1858 has found its way back to Egypt. Horrified to learn he had purchased a stolen artifact, the buyer offered to surrender it right away, Perdu said. It is now back in Cairo, where conservation experts have reunited it with the rest of the statue.

Antiquities theft has flourished in Egypt in the three years of chaos since the 2011 uprising, robbing this ancient civilization of an indeterminate amount of heritage stolen from museums, mosques, storage facilities, and illegal excavations.   Continued...

People stand and walk near the dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP) building of Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak, which was partially burnt down during the January 25 Revolution, with the Egyptian Museum seen on the right, in Cairo April 19, 2014. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih