Egyptians who are looking to the future following their magnificent victory over a dictatorial and venal regime face many challenges. Among them is that of finding reliable ways to recover their past. When protesters were on the streets fighting the Mubarak regime, and before the military could throw a protective cordon, thieves broke into Cairo's Egyptian Museum, which holds the most extensive collection of pharaonic antiquities in the world. After initial denial, the newly created Ministry of Antiquities confirmed that 18 priceless objects including the gilded wood-statue of Tutankhamun with a harpoon — which is more than 3000 years old and was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 — are untraceable. In addition, about 70 important artefacts were damaged. Considering that the museum is located at Tahrir Square and there was a tumultuous crowd nearby, the loss could have been worse. There is enough expertise available to restore the damaged artefacts but the loss of antiquities is deeply worrying. They must be recovered swiftly before they are irretrievably lost to the illicit antiquity market.

Egypt has stringent laws that prescribe heavy fines and rigorous imprisonment up to seven years for stealing and smuggling out antiquities. However, this has not deterred smugglers such as Tokeley-Parry, the antiquities restorer turned thief who disguised the stolen head of Amenhotep III, valued at US $1.1 million, as a cheap replica and slipped it through Egyptian Customs. The prospects of recovering the lost Egyptian antiquities depend entirely on international cooperation that needs to go beyond technical implementation of rules. Museums, antique dealers, and auction houses must demonstrate a firm resolve to stay clear of these stolen antiquities. They must not take up any activity that even indirectly supports their circulation. Institutions that try to defend the indefensible by taking the self-serving ideological stance that museums anywhere must be allowed to acquire and protect “undocumented antiquities,” which are the heritage of humankind and not of any one country, must be shamed and proceeded against legally. Egpyt's antiquities are assets of universal and timeless importance. Recovering and returning them to where they belong is, first, the responsibility of Egypt's transitional regime and, secondly, of governments and law enforcement agencies everywhere.

More In: Editorial | Opinion