x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Van Gogh theft a grim show of Egypt's art security

Conviction of Egyptian officials charged with negligence after theft of Poppy Flowers painting worth Dh202m lays bare flaws in the country's museum system.

CAIRO // The conviction of 11 officials yesterday over the brazen theft of a US$55 million (Dh202m) masterpiece from a Cairo museum in late August may complicate Egypt's effort to reclaim its treasures. 

An Egyptian court sentenced 11 officials from the ministry of culture to three years in prison with hard labour after they were convicted of negligence. The 11 each can pay bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh6,400) to stay out of jail pending their appeal.

Mohsen Shaalan, the deputy minister of culture in charge of fine arts, was the most senior official to be convicted in the theft of the Mahmoud Khalil Museum's Poppy Flowers, which Vincent Van Gogh is believed to have painted in the late 19th century. Authorities have yet to locate the painting or the thieves. 

But the trial laid bare the flaws in a museum system that houses some of human civilisation's most important treasures and could make Egypt's efforts to reclaim prized ancient Egyptian relics from European and North American museums more complex.

"I'm very convinced that museum directors will use this failure of security in an Egyptian museum as an argument not to return items to Egyptian museums," said Ton Cremers, the former head of security for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, a division of the ministry of culture, recently launched a campaign to return to Egypt valued pieces, such as the Rosetta Stone and the Bust of Nefertiti, which are on display in museums in Britain and Germany, respectively.

Mr Hawass said he has overseen the return of as many as 5,000 pieces since he assumed his post in 2002. But western museum directors have shown a reluctance to part with some of the most valuable objects. After Mr Hawass asked the British Museum to lend the Rosetta Stone, a fragment of an ancient engraved stele, for a limited display in Egypt last year, the museum sent him a letter requesting more information about security standards at the Egyptian Museum. The letter so angered Mr Hawass that he dropped his request for a temporary loan, demanding instead that the stone be returned to Egypt for good.

Mr Hawass has repeatedly described Egypt's security and conservation standards as nothing less than sterling. But prosecutors in the trial of the 11 culture ministry officials painted a dramatically different picture. At the time of the theft, none of the alarms at the museum were working and only seven of the museum's 43 surveillance cameras were operable. Budget cuts left only a few guards on duty, allowing the thieves to cut the painting from its frame in broad daylight while guards prayed.

During the trial, Mr Shalaan said that Farouq Hosni, the minister of culture, denied his request for an additional $7 million to finance improved security measures, instead granting $88,000. Mr Hosni denied the accusations. 

In the days following the theft, Mr Hosni was left red-faced once again when he announced that the painting had been recovered from Italian tourists at Cairo's international airport. Hours later, he said his information had been incorrect and that the painting was lost.

Adding to the already troubling security concerns, Mr Hawass temporarily closed the Nubian Museum in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan one week after the Van Gogh was stolen, citing the need to improve the museum's security measures. But if European museums brandish the August 21 theft at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum as evidence of Egypt's lax security standards, they are certainly not alone, said Julien Anfruns, the general director of the Paris-based International Council of Museums.

"With regard to security, Egypt has trouble but they're not the only one," Mr Anfruns said. "You have, just for Van Gogh, at least six or seven Van Gogh are on the Interpol database. So obviously, somewhere else in the world, robberies have occurred." 

mbradley@thenational.ae