Speech by Minister of State Böhmer at a Federal Foreign Office ceremony on 30 April 2014 to celebrate the handover of three Egyptian antiquities to Ambassador Higazy

30.04.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --


Distinguished representatives of the Federal Ministry of Finance,

Ladies and gentlemen,

The political situation in Egypt right now is extremely difficult and disquieting. Let me be quite frank here. In view of the hundreds of death sentences that have been handed down, I wondered at first if I should indeed attend this ceremony. Foreign Minister Steinmeier has already made clear that these verdicts go against everything we understand by the rule of law. He has emphasised that the German Government wants to see the verdicts quashed and the defendants receive a fair trial.

Partners and friends need to be honest with each other! And that means talking with and not about each other! Right now particularly I believe it’s important that we should keep our dialogue going and as true partners continue to cultivate our relations in the cultural sector especially. So I’m very pleased to be handing over to you today, Ambassador, three antiquities which bear eloquent witness to your country’s great and ancient civilisation.

The first is a miniature obelisk probably from Saqqara, which the experts date to around the middle of the third millennium B.C. (2410 – 2220 B.C.). The second is a statue shrine from the 13th century B.C. thought to be from the region of Saqqara, Memphis or Heliopolis. The third is a rectangular family monument sculpted either in Memphis or Saqqara some time between 750 and 525 B.C.

Professor Seyfried, a distinguished ancient Egypt scholar whom I warmly welcome today, will later on be telling us more about their background.

The three objects certainly have an amazing story to tell. These valuable and genuine antiquities were smuggled out of Egypt over five years ago. When they were discovered they had been heading up through Italy and Switzerland to an intended customer in Belgium. Once there they would most likely have suffered the same fate as many other illicitly exported antiquities – snapped up by some anonymous private collector and banished for good from public view.

That things took a different turn and they never reached their destination is due first and foremost to the splendid job done by our customs authorities.

For it was German customs officials who in spring 2009 confiscated the objects at the border after discovering them hidden under a load of carpets in a lorry coming from Switzerland.

Thereupon the Federal Foreign Office – in contrast to some reports in the media – immediately initiated intensive efforts to return the objects to Egypt, working in cooperation with other ministries as well as the relevant authorities and courts and of course the Egyptian side. Obviously that couldn’t happen overnight, for confiscation and decisions about ownership are matters that require a proper legal basis.

But the solution devised by the ministries concerned wouldn’t in the end have worked out if the public prosecutors in Lörrach hadn’t first applied for the objects to be returned to Egypt and the Freiburg Regional Court hadn’t given the final go-ahead for the handover in December 2013.

So let me express my thanks and appreciation to Director Bille and Head of Division Schmitt from the Federal Ministry of Finance as well as to everyone in the ministries, authorities, public prosecution offices and courts who’ve contributed to this happy outcome.

Today’s handover is not just an occasion to draw attention to the active part Germany is playing in the fight against trafficking in cultural property and to highlight our commitment to the 1970 UNESCO Convention addressing this problem.

No, the real purpose of today’s exercise – and here I’m sure you fully agree with me, Ambassador – is to raise public awareness of just what a huge problem international trafficking in antiquities is.

And I’d also like to take this opportunity to appeal to everyone travelling abroad as well as all buyers of art works to be very sure about the provenance of any items you purchase.

For culture and antique sites are not only part of everyone’s national identity, they’re also part of the cultural heritage and memory of all humanity. As a major economic factor, moreover – including for the tourist industry – they have great and ever greater political significance as well. This is particularly true of Egypt as the cultural and scientific cradle of civilisation, whose impressive antique sites – take just Cairo, Luxor, Aswan or Saqqara – continue to fascinate scholars and culture-minded people all over the world.

Not only the destruction of cultural objects and antique sites, but also illegal digging, the looting and illicit export of cultural objects do irreparable damage to what is, after all, our common heritage. Besides Egypt, the prime targets of such practices are Syria, Iraq, the Central American countries, Mexico and Cyprus. Not to speak of the appalling destruction of cultural property and antique sites that’s reportedly happening right now in Syria and elsewhere.

Even worse, the statistics on international organised crime now rank trafficking in cultural property third after arms and drugs trafficking.

All this makes it even harder to understand how people who’re supposedly art-lovers can still see dealing in illicitly exported antiquities or antiquities whose provenance is unclear as some kind of trivial offence.

So I’d like to take the opportunity today to give you this explicit assurance:

The German Government will continue to do everything in its power to clamp down on all such illicit practices.

That’s why we at the Federal Foreign Office have prepared a flyer – please do help yourselves – designed to raise public awareness of the whole problem of trafficking in cultural property. Another thing the German Government has done in this connection was to spearhead a successful European initiative banning the import of and trade in cultural objects from Syria, similar to the one in place for cultural objects from Iraq. And with support from the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, towards the end of the year the German Archaeological Institute and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation will be organising a conference on cultural heritage protection, which will also raise awareness of this important issue.

I can assure you that whenever we know about any object exported in breach of our European standards and international obligations, both the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media will continue to do our best to ensure that it is returned to its country of origin.

And of course, Ambassador, what I’ve just said applies also to all other objects in Germany which have been illicitly removed from Egypt. For these other cases, too, I hope we’ll achieve a repeat of today’s satisfactory outcome.

I’m delighted that the objects handed over today will hopefully soon be back in Egypt and once again accessible to the public.

We wish them all the best!

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