Egypt Called; It Wants Its Rosetta Stone Back

This past week, the Metropolitan Museum in New York announced it will return 19 small objects from King Tut's tomb to Egypt. Now the Egyptians are asking the British to return the Rosetta Stone.

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Last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced it will return 19 small objects from King Tut's tomb to Egypt. The museum's research proved they were stolen.

As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, this is part of an increased sensitivity in the museum world towards such objects. Egyptian archeologists hope more significant works may follow.

Unidentified Man: King Tut, the golden pharaoh.

NEDA ULABY: This mummy has been a celebrity for almost a century. But, says Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, let's be real about the 19 artifacts returning to Egypt.

Mr. THOMAS CAMPBELL (Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art): We have to keep this in perspective. These are not kind of gold faced masks, and vast sarcophagi.

ULABY: So, what are they?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Fragments. They are bits of wood, bits of textile, a little vase with some gunk in it.

ULABY: And some cooler things, like a teeny tiny sphinx and a little bronze dog - hardly the stuff of blockbuster exhibitions. Still, the fact that the Met voluntarily gave them back, although the museum was under no legal obligation to do so, was a triumph for the Egyptian antiquities department.

(Soundbite of beeping)

ULABY: I reached its chief on the phone in Egypt to ask about his other ambitions. Zahi Hawass is pushing hard on Berlin's Neues Museum to return its famous bust of Nefertiti. And he wants the Louvre to give back its ancient zodiac relief, taken from Egypt during Napoleon's campaign.

You'd also like to try to repatriate the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum. Do you really think that's going to happen?

Mr. ZAHI HAWASS (Chief, Egyptian Antiquities Department): Yes. I am - you will hear soon some good news. I need these unique objects back and I will fight to return them back.

ULABY: Many Egyptians believe these objects are significant to their national heritage, and their presence in European museums is a monument to the days of colonialist looting and exploitation.

Mr. HAWASS: Anything that left illegally, it should be back to Egypt.

ULABY: But legalities are difficult to pin down with objects taken 100 or 200 years ago.

Professor PATTY GERSTENBLITH (Founder, Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation): My guess is that it's relatively unlikely that those will be returned.

ULABY: That's Professor Patty Gerstenblith who founded the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation.

But Terry Garcia has a little more confidence in Dr. Hawass's powers of persuasion. Garcia works for the National Geographic Society. He says, still, objects like the Rosetta Stone come with their own sets of ethical and legal dilemmas.

Mr. TERRY GARCIA (National Geographic Society): The legal consequences or the claims that might be asserted against the countries or museums holding these objects be is much less clear. It's very murky.

ULABY: The 19 small objects getting sent back to Egypt will be on display in New York for six months before they go home.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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