Circulating Artefacts: A cross-platform alliance against the looting of pharaonic antiquities

The Department of Ancient Egypt & Sudan has received a generous grant of £998,769 from the Cultural Protection Fund, which is run by the British Council in partnership with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. The project will see the creation of an online semantic database of Egyptian and Nubian antiquities in circulation on the international art market and in private collections.

The database will be an important academic resource, but it will also serve to make the art market more transparent, while acting as a deterrent to looting and other illicit activity. The database will focus on antiquities from Egypt and Sudan, but the platform is configured so that it can be expanded to artefacts from other regions.

Priority goes to the documentation of objects seen in the trade since 1970, the year of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (by the protocols of which the British Museum abides).

The project avails of widespread practical support from different organisations, including law enforcement agencies, legal experts and, crucially, numerous representatives of the antiquities trade itself. Many auction houses, dealers, and dealers’ associations have endorsed the project and agreed to sharing images and metadata with us for inclusion in the database, which will make antiquities more accessible for research, especially within Egypt and Sudan.

A specially appointed team based at the British Museum will oversee the development of the database, and it actively researches suspicious objects that come to its attention. In addition, the project will offer on-the-job training and equipment to antiquities staff from the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt and the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) in Sudan. Twelve trainees will join the British Museum for 6-month periods to build skills in the documentation of circulating antiquities, and they will learn how to describe and research this type of material, with a particular focus on questions of provenance.

They will also meet with all the key organisations and stakeholders that offer assistance to the project, and develop a thorough understanding of the legal and practical framework within which the art market operates, both internationally and within specific countries. In the process they will learn how, and with whom, their home institutions can work to more effectively counteract any trade in illicit antiquities.

We anticipate that the trade, collectors, museums, colleagues, police, and members of the general public will increasingly contribute to the database, and consult it as well. Everyone can help by supplying images and information on artefacts. For enquiries about the project, or if you wish to support it in some way, please contact us at CirculatingArtefacts@britishmuseum.org.

Stolen relief from a London collection, identified by the British Museum in 2014 as coming from a building of Thutmose IV in Karnak, now repatriated to Egypt. © Marcel Marée

Statuette of a Middle Kingdom lector priest, recently acquired by the British Museum (EA 83921). The vendor was unaware of its history prior to 1979. The British Museum determined that it previously belonged to the Art Institute in Chicago, who legally deaccessioned it in 1958. © Trustees of the British Museum