London — The Boston Museum of Fine Arts owns a 4,100-year-old painting that robbers looted from an Egyptian tomb and spirited away to an antique dealer in London's posh Mayfair district.
The 20-inch-square painting is but one item pilfered over the years from remote tombs that eventually found its way to a reputable museum.
"When we first saw the piece, it was hard to tell where it came from in Egypt. But once the transactions were quite far along we knew that, yes, it came from Deir el Gebrawi, says a Boston museum official who declined to be identified. "But at that point, we decided to go ahead and buy the painting to preserve it. If we hadn't bought the fragment, it might've been broken up and dispersed into private collections."
Museum curators face a tough moral dilemma. Once a stolen object hits the markets, a museum can save it from disppearing forever into a millionaire's clutches. But temple robbers work on the same mechanisms of supply and demand as any other market. As long as a museum or private collector is willing to pay for relics from an Egyptian tomb, or anything else, looters will stay in business.
Often, robbers will deliberately smash tomb murals into minute pieces just to prevent identification. Their cannibalism not only destroys a priceless work of art but, as Dr. Harry James, keeper of Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum in London, explains, "This desecration makes it impossible for us to decipher what remains of the ancient civilization."
Deir el Gebrawi, where the tomb painting comes from, is the perfect place for grave robbers. An endless boat ride up through the marshes and cane fields to the Nile, this temple of an obscure Egyptian nobleman has seen few travelers since British archaeologists first stumbled upon it in 1902, charted the intricate labyrinth of tombs, and promptly abandoned the site when discoveries far more dazzling were made in lower Egypt.
Eclipsed by the necropolis of Luxor and Karnak, Deir el Gebrawi seemed destined for more centuries of neglect. But the thriving trade in plundered Egyptian antiquities that sprang up after World War II changed all that.
A gang of tomb thieves, probably within the last 15 years, stole into one of Deir el Gebrawi's many crypts and hacked off a beautiful limestone relief.
Later it was sold for a considerable sum to a London antique dealer, who then sold it in 1976 to a private collector for even more money. In 1978, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts bought the fragment. Museum officials claim the sale totaled less than $10,000. But antique dealers contacted in London quoted double that price.
Plundering historic monuments is a crime in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. But European archaeologists claim that because the Egyptian government is so stone-broke, the Cairo antiquities deparment is riddled with corruption. Authorities there have taken no steps to confirm or deny that looting has taken place in the Deir el Gebrawi tomb.
"Chances are they won't," an Egyptian diplomat in London says. "Usually, they're too embarrassed to admit that this large-scale bribery is going on."
Most probably, the Deir el Gebrawi thieves bribed their way into the dusty tomb, archaeological sources say. From Deir el Gebrawi, the looters are thought to have wrangled a fake Egyptian export certificate that allowed them to fly the tomb painting, trouble-free, into Europe from Cairo. A Boston Museum official claims to have only a photocopy of the tomb painting's export certificate. However, this official admitted that the export date on the photocopy was so faint it was unreadable.
Travelers returning from Cairo claim that $200 will ensure the safe transit of even the largest ancient treasure.
"Why, fragments from an out-of-the-way tomb are nothing. Sarcophagi and huge stone statues leave Egypt illegally every day," a French archaeologist working on one of the 60 excavations currently under way in Egypt says.
London is the hub of the antiquities market and, not surprisingly, the Deir el Gebrawi tomb block ended up in there. Part of it was sold through a Swiss dealer in 1976 to the prestigious Kestner Museum in Hannover, West Germany. The remaining fragment -- which depicts Egyptian laborers cutting barley and binding it into neatly stacked bales -- was seen by a British Museum curator in the window of a swanky antique shop off Bond Street in the Mayfair section.
The curator says, "At the time, I thought, "That's from Deir el Gebrawi,' but I didn't pursue the matter. Later I was shocked to hear that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts bought the fragment."
The Boston museum obtained the tomb painting in 1978, but in its annual report did not mention that it came from Deir el Gebrawi. Edward Brovarski, the assistant Egyptian antiquities curator, denies that the museum was concealing the object's shady origins.
"This agricultural scene is very common in Egyptian tomb art. That's why we were too uncertain of the site to put it into the museum report," Brovarski explains.
"Nonsense," a leading British Egyptologist says. "These tomb paintings aren't like roll-on wallpaper. Each one is unique, especially the reliefs of Deir el Gebrawi."
The museum refuses to reveal the name of the private collector who sold it the tomb painting. To complicate the matter, the London antique shop that once displayed the plundered item has since closed down.
If it wasn't for a Presbyterian minister who swapped his Scottish parish for the deserts of Egypt in the late 1890s, the trail would have grown cold.
Norman de Garvis-Davies and his Greek-born wife, Nina, were probably two of the most meticulous people who ever lived. Together they undertook the titanic task of copying every hieroglyph, even down to the smallest scarab, on thousands of tombs throughout Egypt.
Deir el Gebrawi was one of them. Working by lantern for hundreds of hours in the crypts, they made copies of the paintings in each chamber so precise that, even today, no camera can match them. The methodical couple, who apparently liked living in the dark, later moved into a tomb at the necropolis in Thebes.
A comparison of the Garvis-DAvies tomb drawings from Deir el Gebrawi and the photo of the Boston museum's acquisition shows that they are identical, Egypt experts attested. As one British archaeologist remarks, "You can even make out the bare feet of the harvesters in the cartoon frame above."
Mr. Brovarski maintains that it is impossible to be "100 percent sure unless you have a photo [of the tomb] to compare it to." He says he doesn't feel the Garvis-Davies line drawings are enough evidence.
Still, the Boston Museum of Fine Art's purchase is negligible when sized up with the massive loot that the Europeans have pillaged from Egypt over the past two centuries. And another museum official pointed out that over half the museum's Egyptian antiquities collection was given to the museum by the Egyptian government in exchange for conducting excavations there.
But the agreement has not always been so gentlemanly. One of the first "professional" European archaeologists was a circus strong man, just over 6 feet 7, named Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who traveled up and down the Nile in the early 1800s, carting off nearly every mummy and stone statue that his big arms could lift. The sculpted head of Ramses II is only one of the many treasures that Belzoni lugged off to the British Museum.
The French were no better. Once French government agents at Aswan, Lower Egypt, waited until Belzoni finished wrenching a colossal obelisk from its pedestal. Then they robbed him at gunpoint and shipped the obelisk to Paris.