An Egyptian papyrus, one of thousands that were returned to Egypt from the Museum of the Bible's collection (images courtesy the Museum of the Bible)

Authorities in Egypt are celebrating the repatriation of a collection of 5,000 artifacts from the United States, previously held at the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, DC. The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) returned the artifacts to Cairo yesterday, January 27, concluding Egypt’s efforts to retrieve the items since 2016.

The collection includes manuscripts and papyrus fragments with texts written in Coptic, hieratic and demotic scripts, and Greek. Some of the papyri feature Christian prayers written in Arabic and Coptic or Arabic only.

Other items in the collection include cartonnage funerary masks, parts of coffins, heads from stone statues, and portraits of the deceased, according to Egyptian officials. The objects will be handed to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, which is the largest museum of its kind in the world.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, the MOTB referred to a statement by Hobby Lobby president and MOTB’s founder and chairman Steven Green. In March of 2020, Green announced that the manuscripts and artifacts would be returned to Egypt due to “insufficient reliable provenance.” Egyptian authorities have claimed that the items were obtained through illegal excavations and smuggled out of the country.

In the same statement, Green addressed the widespread criticism of his museum’s unethical acquisition policies, which were subject to federal investigations, including a $3 million fine, claiming that they resulted from his lack of experience in collecting antiquities.

Fragments of papyrus that were previously held at the Museum of the Bible

“In 2009, when I began acquiring biblical manuscripts and artifacts for what would ultimately form the collection at Museum of the Bible, I knew little about the world of collecting,” Green said. “It is well known that I trusted the wrong people to guide me, and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers in those early years. One area where I fell short was not appreciating the importance of the provenance of the items I purchased.” 

Official negotiations between Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and MOTB ran for two years since late 2017 in coordination with the DHS, ending with an agreement to repatriate the collection to Egypt.

In a statement yesterday, Green said that the items were handed over to the US government on January 7 after being kept at third-party fine art storage facilities since June of 2020.

Green also announced that another smuggled collection of 8,106 clay objects from Iraq was returned to the Iraq Museum in Bagdad yesterday via the DHS.

US Ambassador to Egypt Jonathan Cohen praised the repatriation of the items, telling the Egyptian press: “The United States is pleased to return these artifacts to Egypt as part of the joint cooperation between the two countries in the field of protecting Egypt’s rich cultural heritage, and we look forward to continuing this cooperation in the future.”

In an article for Hyperallergic in 2018, Roberta Mazza, a lecturer in Graeco-Roman material cult and papyrology at the University of Manchester in the UK, described how she had traced the origins of a Coptic papyrus in Green’s Collection, which was partly incorporated into MOTB’s collection, to an unscrupulous eBay account operating from Turkey. The Green Collection told Mazza that the papyrus was acquired in 2013 from an anonymous trusted dealer, who had provided as provenance a Christie’s auction in 2011. However, the Green Collection was unable to provide Mazza with documents from the 2011 auction, and Christie’s couldn’t confirm details about the sale.

“Illicit excavations and a black market for undocumented antiquities make preservation all the more urgent,” Mazza wrote. “This is where provenance research comes in.”

The papyrologist added that looting and illicit excavations in Egypt “not only destroy the archaeological landscape forever, but also have also caused deaths and injuries to Egyptians, including children, employed to dig in narrow shafts.”

Calling for the repatriation of papyri to Egypt, Mazza wrote: “Academics should exercise an active role in educating collectors and keeping an eye on the market. Would you knowingly buy a stolen bike? Why would you buy — or publish — a stolen manuscript?”  

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...