2015-01-08 - Factum Arte Tomb Tutankhamun

The Cause of Preservation in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens.

Ruth Osborne
2015-01-08 - Tomb Queen Nefertari playing senet

Painted wall showing Queen Nefertari playing senet. Courtesy: G.E. Wood.

The tomb of Queen Nefertari (13th century B.C.) has been referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt” for its fantastically well-preserved wall paintings.

Since its 1904 discovery in the Valley of the Queens by Ernesto Schiaparelli, the tomb has, like many artistic treasures, been exposed to the ravages of vandals and much environmental damage. It wasn’t until 1933 that access to the tomb was first restricted. The Art Newspaper recently reported that the tomb will now be re-opened once a month, despite it having been closed to visitors in 2006. Before that, the tomb had been restricted to a very limited number of guests after the conservators from the Getty worked for several years to stabilize the brilliantly preserved wall paintings.

This past April came the proud announcement of its re-opening for the 110th anniversary celebration of its discovery. As the press release on the Egyptian Tourism Authority’s website states, there were “several Italian archeologists” who attended. No doubt, these professionals served to allay any fears of the tomb being mistreated by those who should know best. Reluctant Minister of the ETA, Hesham Zaazou, is reported to have said the re-opening will have “an important impact on promoting cultural tourism in order to assure stability and security were restored in Egypt.” So, a piece of ancient heritage that has preserved the artistic traditions of those who built Egypt thousands of years ago will be subservient to the need to restore stability to the terribly torn modern nation? For the sake of renewing the inflow of income from visitors to the tomb? Surely the irony does not fall on deaf ears here – risking an already at-risk piece of ancient artistic and cultural heritage for the sake of making money off it? Where does this money then go – to the maintenance and preservation of the site? Will its needs for preservation not then increase precisely due to the fact that it has been opened again?

2015-01-08 - Tomb Queen Nefertari antechamber

Antechamber (east wall), Vestibule, and access route to Lateral Chamber of Tomb QV66. Courtesy: G.E. Wood.

In the late 1980s, emergency methods had to be utilized by the Getty Conservation Institute in their attempt to secure the wall paintings from further eroding. The condition, analysis, and treatment are outlined in a report from conservator Frank Preusser, presented at the 1987 symposium on The Conservation of Wall Paintings organized by the Courtauld and the Getty. According to this report, conservators and scholars had worked for nearly five decades to determine the optimal solution for preserving the wall paintings.

Following the emergency treatment, the tomb was reopened in 1995 for about 10 years to only 150 visitors because of the continued risk of exposure to increased humidity, carbon dioxide, and microbiological activity from humans. The Getty even produced a large colorful volume meant to share the beauties of the tomb as a “descriptive walk-through…while conveying a strong message regarding the need for conservation and continuous monitoring to ensure the long-term survival of the tomb’s paintings.” It was at this same symposium that concern over the appropriate levels of cleaning for the Sistine ceiling was addressed.

2015-01-08 - Factum Arte Tomb Tutankhamun

Factum Arte working on color-matching in Tutankhamun’s tomb, 2009. Courtesy: Factum Foundation.

Factum Arte’s recently finished project with the popular tomb of Tutankhamun stands in stark contrast to the treatment of Nefertari’s tomb. Work began on this tomb in view of celebrating the 90th anniversary of its opening in 1922. Not yielding to the pressures of dwindling state coffers, the EU and Minister Zaazou, who is mentioned above, enlisted the help of Factum Arte in 2009 to study, scan, and recreate the tomb’s artwork with three-dimensional printed facsimiles. Not only did the project battle ongoing damage from human contact, but also previous conservation attempts in the tomb. Unfortunately, Tutankhamun’s tomb is one of the many art works that has suffered from eager but insufficient treatment before better methods are developed.

BBC’s coverage of Factum Arte’s facsimile questions its effectiveness in terms of the tomb’s preservation, due to the site’s continuous popularity with international visitors: “…years of visitors trekking around the old tombs of the pharaohs is causing these historic sites to deteriorate…but will tourists really want to travel to Egypt just to visit a mock-up?” However, while the facsimile has been completed and delivered to Egypt, it remains to be installed and utilized for protection of the original site from further deterioration. According to one tourist interviewed by the BBC: “We need to have that passion to see the real thing. If you’re seeing a replica, you don’t have that same passion.” But is it really authentic if it has been destroyed by years of exposure and bad conservation attempts? These sites simply weren’t made thousands of years ago for this kind of exhibition. Can Egypt’s Tourist Authority manage to see the things in a greater perspective and care for the long-term well-being of their cultural heritage?

According to artist Adam Lowe, founder of Factum Arte, “How works of art were looked after and protected in the past reveals how they were seen and valued…The same is true about the way we care for things now. To future generations it will reveal a lot about us – assuming we have not destroyed most of the things we inherited.”

Egypitian Minister Zaazou has expressed hope that the recent re-opening of other new ancient sites over the past several years will help double tourist revenue back to where it was before the 2011 revolution. This included the reopening of the pyramids at Giza in 2012. However, this  followed on the heels of a series of stolen antiquities from museum collections and reported break-ins at archeological sites.

Meanwhile, Egypt is not alone in its problems caring for important ancient cultural and artistic sites. In Peru, Chan Chan – the largest pre-Columbian city in South America – faces the possibility of losing its UNESCO World Heritage site title (since 1986). This has developed with mounting damage to the archeological site due to lack of proper monitoring of visitors and nearby construction.

Since 2009, the Getty has committed to a new conservation effort at Tutankhamun’s tomb, working in partnership with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). One of the main goals is for their collected data to update recommendations for better use and safer preservation of the site during visitation and commercial filming and photography. Though researchers have apparently found that “the condition of the paintings is excellent,” their assessment of the tomb’s use relates an urgency to improve the wider public’s understanding of their impact on ancient heritage sites and why conservation is necessary. Putting into effect the Getty’s recommended changes to the site’s infrastructure and presentation would involve improving the areas open to visitors and the numbers that are allowed in.

All of this is part of a larger project to help better manage the visitation to and preservation of the site at the Valley of the Kings and Queens. The questions still remain, however, as to when, how and to what effect will these improvements in management of important cultural sites be implemented. This ultimately is up to the Egyptian government, and we hope they make the right decisions.

2015-01-08 - Egyptian Tourism Authority

Egyptian Tourism Authority website.


“Celebrating Nefertari’s tomb discovery to take place in Luxor,” Egypt Tourism Authority: News. 18 August 2014. (last accessed 8 January 2015).

“Chan Chan at risk of losing ‘Cultural Heritage’ title.” IIC News in Conservation (December 2014) p. 4. (last accessed 8 January 2015).

Christopher Torchia, AP. “King Tutankhamun’s Stolen Dad Found; Egypt Sites to Reopen on Sunday.” ArtDaily. February 2011.–Egypt-Sites-to-Reopen-on-Sunday#.VKIoucACEA (last accessed 8 January 2015).

“Conservation and Management of the Tomb of Tutankhamen.” The Getty Conservation Institute: Current Projects. Last updated March 2013. (last accessed 8 January 2015).

Conservation Perspectives (Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 2008). The Getty Conservation Institute. (last accessed 8 January 2015).

“Egypt reopens Pyramid of Chefren to tourists.” BBC News (11 October 2012). (last accessed 8 January 2015).

“Facsimile of the Tomb of Tutankhamun,” Factum Foundation: Projects. (last accessed 8 January 2015).

Florence Hallett, “We Made It: Factum Arte.” The Arts Desk: We Made It. 19 December 2014. (last accessed 8 January 2015).

Frank Preusser, “Scientific and Technical Examination of the Tomb of Queen Nefertari at Thebes,” in The Conservation of Wall Paintings: Proceedings of a Symposium organized by the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Getty Conservation Institute, London, July 13-16, 1987. (last accessed 29 December 2014) 1-12.

Garry Shaw, “Egypt reopens tomb as tourism falls,” The Art Newspaper: Conservation. (Issue 263, December 2014). (last accessed 8 January 2015).

Husni Mouafi, “Egyptian tourism minister looks to future,” Al Monitor. 9 January 2014. (last accessed 8 January 2015).

Liz Jobey, “Conservation: Factum Arte remaking history,” FT Magazine (26 July 2013). (last accessed 2 January 2015).

“UNESCO volunteers working on Chan Chan conservation.” Peru This Week: Archeology (8 July 2014). (last accessed 8 January 2015).

“Will a mock-up of Tutankhamun’s tomb pull in tourists?” BBC News: Fast Track (21 January 2013). (last accessed 8 January 2015).

2006-05-03 - Euphronios krater

Has the Met Been Rewarded for Looting Antiquities?

The Metropolitan Museum website may now indicate that the famous 2500-year-old Euphronios krater is “Lent by the Republic of Italy,” but that has hardly been the case since the acquisition of the object thirty years ago. Shortly after the Met acquired the krater, Italy claimed that the work had been stolen from a tomb in Cerveteri.

Despite Italian rumblings from the start, the Metropolitan, they say on the basis of switched documents, insisted that they believed the work came from a Lebanese collection. Nonetheless, proof has finally been accepted that the krater, which was purchased for $1 million during the tenure of Director Thomas Hoving in 1972 from Robert E. Hecht, was stolen from an Etruscan tomb the year before.

The Met’s deal includes the return of the krater as well as fifteen pieces of silver looted from the Sicilian site of Morgantina, acquired by the museum in 1981 and 1982. In that instance, although claims of the illegal provenance have been made since 1987, the Met has only recently acquiesced.

While many may not be surprised at the reluctance of the Metropolitan to return the objects, and the complete refusal to admit any wrongdoing in their acquisition policies, more shocking is the manner in which current and former Metropolitan officials have spoken of the matter. In a recent interview (Time Out New York, March 2006) former Director Hoving lauded Phillipe de Montebello’s arrangement with the Italian government. “It was there for 30 years. Now they can exchange it for other great things. They’re going to get fabulous stuff over an indefinite period, stuff they could never buy, never find and never afford if they found it. It’s sensational. It’s a landmark move. It’s gutsy, and I think [Met director] Philippe de Montebello did a great thing.”

Even though Hoving chalks up his acquisition of the stolen krater as the normal practice of the time, saying it occurred in the “days of raw piracy, when nobody cared,” he simultaneously touts his role in formulating the UNESCO
treaty back in 1970.

In his book, Making the Mummies Dance, the former Director wrote about the experience of landing the Euphronius krater: “I sat back at my desk shuffling black and white photos of my passion and felt a near-sexual pleasure. We had landed a work that would force the history of Greek art to be rewritten, perhaps the last monumental piece ever to come out of Italy, slipping in just underneath the crack in the door of the pending UNESCO treaty which would drastically limit the trade in antiquities. We had gained a triumphant work, one of surpassing power and infinite mystery, one, I knew, that would one day reveal surprises.”

One might, however, expect a more conciliatory attitude on the part of the current Metropolitan Director and other officials at the Museum. However, despite overwhelming evidence that the objects were improperly acquired and withheld from Italian collections for decades, Philippe de Montebello seemed less than apologetic.

The United States participated and played a key role in the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) agreement signed in Paris in 1970, entitled Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Regardless of the government’s official position, Montebello told the New York Times shortly after the agreement was struck, “I am puzzled by the zeal with which the United States rushes to embrace foreign laws that can ultimately deprive its own citizens of important objects useful to the education and delectation of its own citizens.” His own words suggest that the only reason that the Metropolitan decided to finally address the Italian claims is because the issue, one he referred to as an irritant, did not appear to be dissipating.

Much to the chagrin of archaeologists everywhere, Montebello minimized the importance of preserving the archaeological context of objects, information that is lost when objects are stolen: “How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole in — supposedly Cerveteri — it came out of?” he asked. “Everything is on the vase.” Despite the fact that Montebello claims that the attention given to the issue of stolen objects in recent years has greatly reduced the number of antiquities entering into American collections, the Metropolitan’s policy, dating to 2004, is not particularly rigid. It allows for the purchase of any object with documentation that dates back at least ten years, unless the object is deemed especially important.

Even with the recent decision to return several items, including the famed krater, the Met feels they have achieved something of a victory, a point not lost on Hoving. Montebello thinks the real achievement in the current agreement is not the return of stolen objects, but rather that Italy “has agreed to the principle of a fair exchange of like material.” To wit, the Euphronius krater, in deference to the re-opening of the remodeled Roman and Hellenistic galleries at the Met in Spring of 2007, will remain in New York until early 2008.

This same attitude, that no real wrong was committed, was celebrated at a panel discussion entitled “Who Owns Art” at the New School in New York on March 6th. Montebello said: “I thought that some sort of formula where reciprocity and exchange could be arranged would be successful for both sides and not deprive the American museums altogether of antiquities when the objects were returned to Italy. As you know, Italian museum storerooms are engorged with works of art. It’s not as if they needed them. This is a political statement.” He criticized the Italian government strongly for pursuing their case through the press, calling the process “shabby”. The audience, reportedly composed largely of collectors who paid $25 each to attend the event, was criticized by some as a staged publicity event. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the panel discussion was organized by the New York Times, a paper with notoriously close ties to the Met.

The Metropolitan isn’t the only institution to come under fire for their practices of acquisition, past and current. The Getty, embroiled in a scandal known as “Gettygate”, has been questioned regarding a full half of the antiquities in their large collection. Just recently, the villa (in Paros) of the Getty’s former antiquities curator, Marion True, was raided, and several undeclared antiquities were confiscated. True is, by the way, already facing trial in Italy for the looting of antiquities. This was followed shortly thereafter by the discovery of thousands of undeclared ancient objects in a cache located on the Greek island of Skhoinousa, many of which had been purchased by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Authorities have released few immediate findings, but there was an expressed interest in determining if any of the objects were intended for the already embattled Getty Museum.

The scandals may grow tiresome, but museums, especially public institutions like the Metropolitan, have a responsibility to the public, and they should show an interest in serving more than their legacies.

At Risk: Buddhist Art in Afghanistan

Ancient statues of the Buddha in the war-torn country of Afghanistan are under threat.

Reports hit the international media on Saturday that prior threats by the Taliban authorities of Afghanistan to destroy all of the statues within that nation were being summarily carried out. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban supreme leader, first initiated the order on February 26th, claiming that statues were tantamount to idols, and thus were against the tenants of Islam. The edict proclaimed, “Because God is one God and these statues are there to be worshipped, and that is wrong, they should be destroyed so that they are not worshiped now or in the future.”

In addition to some 6,000 works of art held in the Kabul museum, attention has focused primarily on two monumental statues of Buddha carved into a mountainside in Bamiyan. The statues, dating from the fifth century, are 120 feet and 175 feet, the latter believed to be the tallest statue of a standing Buddha. Reports were issued on March 3rd that the destruction of these two works was already underway, as explosives were used to demolish the heads and legs of the figures. While no images showing their present condition can be obtained due to an outlaw of photography by the ruling government, the Taliban’s Information Minister Quadratullah Jamal has stated, “Our soldiers were working hard to demolish their remaining parts. They will come down soon.”

This hardline stance has led to a wave of international reaction. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has begun an international petition and has founded a special bank account for the cultural heritage of Afghanistan, which will be used for emergent funding of actions to protect these cultural objects. While many Buddhist nations have been relatively quiet on the issue, claiming that criticizing the action would be against Buddha’s teachings, other nations have voiced their opinions. Iran, which is also ruled by an Islamic government, came out against the Taliban’s order, along with Pakistan, Russia, and Germany. And while United Nations’ Secretary General Kofi Annan also requested that the Afghan government spare these statues, the larger international community is diplomatically powerless to impact Taliban’s decisions. The authority of Taliban, which controls more than 90 percent of Afhanistan, is not recognized as legitimate by the UN, which instead upholds the ousted government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Sanctions against Taliban, issued because of their refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, have increased the hardships suffered by the people of this war-torn nation. With the country entrenched in civil strife and facing a humanitarian crisis, many suspect that the timing of this edict may have as much to do with politics as religion.

The museum community has also spoken out against the destruction of these statues. The Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been at the forefront of this movement, issuing a statement on March 1st that they would fund the rescue and preservation of transportable works of art. Officials from other institutions such as the Harvard University Art Museums and the J. Paul Getty Museum have expressed their support for this action, as have the Association of Art Museum Directors. ArtWatch International has similarly lauded the Metropolitan Museum’s efforts to salvage any remaining statues.