The Caravan’s investigation into the recent theft of antiquities has revealed that in a period spanning several decades AUC faculty and officials collected more than 1,600 artifacts described by Egyptology experts to be ‘of no great significance’ in value.
(Six suspects have been arrested in the theft of the antiquities stored below Ewart Hall - click here)
Ironically, the theft of some of these items brought to light the previously unknown cache stored beneath Ewart Hall.
Renowned Egyptologist and professor emeritus Kent R. Weeks told The Caravan that “the objects in Ewart Hall were acquired by then-President Richard Pederson, who for some reason thought it would be nice to have a teaching collection of antiquities on campus.”
Weeks said that all the objects were legally acquired by the university and registered at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).
“As I recall, nearly all - if not all - of the pieces were purchased by Pederson from dealers in Khan el-Khalili,” said Weeks, adding that as far as he knows, the objects are of little historical significance.
Weeks said that the university attempted to hand over the artifacts to the SCA, but that the “objects have no particular historical or artistic importance, and the SCA refused to accept them and instead insisted that AUC keep them safely stored on campus.”
AUC President Lisa Anderson confirmed that the university came into possession of these objects after professors and presidents “legally acquired these antiques before and during the 1980s.”
Letters acquired by The Caravan through university archives reveal that Pederson, president from 1977-1990, regularly purchased pieces of art and antiquities, a lawful practice at that time. In an exchange between Pederson and then Board of Trustees member George Bickford, dating from 1987, Pederson expressed his interest in establishing an AUC endowment fund for annually acquiring artifacts.
“A couple of years ago, I used up all the remaining funds designated for such acquisitions by purchasing a number of small pharonic (sic), Coptic and early Islamic materials.” Regarding the endowment fund, Pederson emphasized that the “regularity - rather than quantity” of the acquisitions will help AUC “keep up with the artistic developments in Egypt and to have an educational and cultural collection.”
Pederson was personally keen on improving the university’s role in the fields of archeology and Egyptology.
A year after he first held office, Pederson sent letters to Kennedy Schmertz from the Smithsonian Institute, the world’s largest museum complex located in the US, to request funding for the salary and research expenses of Ali Hassan, the former director of the Egyptian Museum. Pederson had persuaded Hassan to join the AUC faculty with the aim of starting an Egyptology program.
In 1990, Pederson told Bickford in a letter that the renovation of a “turn-of-the-century villa” into a rare books library will provide space, “one of the finest rooms,” for the display of the antiques belonging to AUC. He also reaffirmed that he has been collecting artifacts during the 1980s, an endeavor that became difficult by the ‘90s.
Pederson wrote: “About twenty years ago AUC was buying some current art. And when I arrived there also was about $10,000 in restricted gifts for such purchases that had not been used. Over the period of two or three years I spent it all for pharaonic, Coptic, and Islamic objects that could then be legally acquired. (Some still can, but it is harder.)”
Plans to display the artifacts, however, never materialized. While President Anderson says the university had intended to move the artifacts to the New Campus and put these objects on display, she noted that “most of [the artifacts] are not that interesting to be displayed for the general public, but more to the people of the field, like archaeologists and Egyptologists.”
Additionally, numerous Fatimid Coptic and Islamic artifacts were excavated during a 1946 expedition in Fustat, Old Cairo, later led by George Scanlon, AUC professor of Islamic arts and architecture.
The Caravan archives revealed that in the 1980s, AUC supported the excavation of a medieval site, where the team uncovered a range of artifacts, particularly coins and glass weights related to the late seventh and eighth century. After the excavation, the SCA honored Scanlon by offering a number of unearthed objects to his personal study, Salima Ikram, current professor of Egyptology, said.
This was made possible under Egyptian Law No. 215 (1951) on the Protection of Antiquities, which allowed the appropriation of part of any excavation finds to foreign expedition parties. The law was later repealed in 1983.
At press time, Scanlon was unavailable for comment.
Associate Provost John Swanson, who found out about the artifacts after inquiring of a staircase leading to the underground storage area a number of years ago, said that “the objects are nothing of great significance [to the public],” as far as he is aware.
However, Ikram said that “the sensitivity of having artifacts, though legal, might have influenced the decision to put the objects on display.”
Ramadan Badry, director of the National Project for Documentation of the Antiquities of Egypt at the SCA, said artifacts accumulated over the years were first registered with the Ministry in 1985 and have since been subject to government checkups.
According to a Ministry of Antiquities press release last week, the Ministry compiled a list of AUC’s artifacts in 2010, and conducted another inventory after the theft in March, which revealed that 145 authentic pieces and 50 replicas had been stolen. The collection had previously been looted in 1989, but the thief had never been apprehended.
Anderson said that the university’s Investigation Committee is currently looking into the matter, and will reveal details regarding the case in due time, as well as the list of the more than 1,600 artifacts.
“I didn’t know about [the hidden artifacts], it is one of the things we’re investigating - why we do not have a regular, clear inventory of everything,” said Anderson, who declined to comment on the investigation before its completion.
“It appears that we were assembling over 1,000 pieces, mostly shards. It appears we had more than that before, but we do not know. The SCA are coming and continue to come,” Anderson told the Faculty Senate in a meeting last Tuesday.
She told the faculty that AUC’s Investigation Committee is collaborating with government authorities to find details regarding the incidents and ways to avoid a future recurrence.
The investigation teams are currently comparing the list of acquired objects with those currently in storage, in an attempt to find out what exactly has gone missing. The results will be published once the investigation has concluded, which Anderson says may be in a few weeks.
Students and faculty members have questioned why the presence of these antiquities was not made public, and why senior administrators claim to have not known about their storage.
“These properties belong to the AUC community. We don’t have enough information, we’re waiting for the Investigation Committee. Why didn’t the university take precautions regarding these items?” Awad Khalil, professor of computer science and engineering, told The Caravan after last week’s Faculty Senate meeting.
The Presidential Building, which houses Ewart Hall, is located in the Main Campus. The building originally belonged to Ahmed Pasha Khouri, a minister of education under the Khedive Ismail.
It was later transformed into a tobacco factory owned by a Greek businessman in 1889, and made into a private university after American educators purchased the property in 1919.