EGYPTIAN archaeologists were in high spirits this week as a greywacke head of the 18th Dynasty King Amenhotep III was returned to Egypt after two decades of being shunted back and forth between Switzerland, Britain and the US, reports Nevine El-Aref.
The distinctive features, with full cheeks, wide, raised and slightly arched eyebrows above elongated but sharply edged narrow eyes, are a supreme example of the sculptural style that dominated King Amenhotep III’s reign. Originally part of a larger statue of Amenhotep III, the head is thought to have been made in the studios located within the Ptah Temple enclosure at Memphis, near the Saqqara necropolis.
The story of the theft of the head dates back to 1992, when antiquities restorer Jonathan Tokeley-Parry began stealing Pharaonic objects and smuggling them out of Egypt. He succeeded in pilfering 35 items from the tomb of Heteb-Ka in Saqqara, 10 kilometres south of Giza, smuggling them through customs by hiding each under a layer of plaster, which he then painted in a crude fashion so that they resembled replicas produced by the Egyptian Documentation Centre.
In 1994, while trying to sell 24 papyrus texts, Tokeley-Parry was asked to produce a provenance for the items by an antiquities trader. The scam was revealed when his assistant took the papyri to the British Museum and the curator recognised them as part of a collection discovered in 1966 by a British mission excavating in the animal necropolis of north Saqqara.
The museum immediately contacted Scotland Yard, the Egyptian Embassy in London, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the Egyptian tourist and antiquities police. The trail led back to Tokeley-Parry who was arrested in Britain in 1997 and subsequently handed a three-year prison sentence for masterminding the operation. In Egypt he was sentenced in absentia to 15 years of hard labour.
In 2002 the stolen collection was retrieved and put on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, though without the head of Amenhotep III which had been purchased by an American citizen and then used as collateral on a loan from a US bank.
After being smuggled out of Egypt in the early 1990s the head was first taken to Switzerland and then to the UK. It was recovered in 1999 by the Met Police’s art and antiques unit, which had been investigating New York antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz — a former president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art and consultant in antiques to former president Bill Clinton. In 2002 the FBI prosecuted Schultz for his role in handling the stolen head. He was sentenced to 33 months and fined $50,000. Since then, the sculpture has been in the kept at a secure facility in London.
“The case was extremely complicated as the head was the subject of two criminal proceedings, in the UK and the US,” says SCA legal consultant Ashraf Ashmawi.
Karen Sanig, head of art law at Mishcon de Reya, London, said in a press conference held to highlight the recovery: “As so often happens with cultural heritage artefacts, the perpetrators are apprehended and dealt with long before the art finds its way back to the true owner. The reason is that there is no international law which deals with the trafficking of stolen art and antiquities.”