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treasure of harageh

A portion of the Treasure of Harageh

One of the things we adore about our city is that so much of its art and culture are free. Unfortunately, the St. Louis Society of the Archaeological Institute of America has their own ideas about art and culture — and how to profit from it. Over the vehement objections of local members, the Society has decided to auction off thirty-seven pieces of their ancient Egyptian collection.

The artifacts, including stunning pieces of silver jewelry and one in the shape of an exquisitely crafted bee, set with lapis lazuli, were given to the local chapter more than a century ago: to protect them. In early October, all of the items will be available for sale on Bond Street in London. Lot 160 at Bohnams, romantically listed as the “Treasure of Harageh,” is expected to fetch around two hundred thousand dollars.

Let us be clear: The auction of these items, while disturbing, should not be misconstrued as comparable to the black market sale of antiquities, more recently resulting from conflicts in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. The backstory to how the St. Louis Society acquired this “treasure” is legal and unimpeachably documented.

In 1914, exactly a decade after St Louis held its famous World’s Fair, a British team of researchers, led by the father of modern archaeology, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, had excavated in an area of the Fayum region of Egypt at a site known as Harageh. Because the British excavations benefited from the financial support of the St Louis community, some of the team’s finds were “partitioned,” or shared, with the chapter here. The pieces—which date to the reign of Pharaoh Sesostris II, who ruled Egypt in the nineteenth century B.C. — have been in the St. Louis Society’s collection ever since.

Selling off cultural property is not an issue that any arts or heritage organization should take lightly. The ramifications can be severe. As recently as August, one museum in the United Kingdom was stripped of its accreditation for auctioning off one of its Egyptian statues. In this case, the local Society’s decision now puts the Egyptian government in the uncomfortable position of having to bid on its own heritage, if it wants the tomb finds returned.

Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist who has worked tirelessly to protect and retrieve Egypt’s cultural heritage in recent years, said, “If the St. Louis Society wants to divest themselves of their Egyptian artifacts, I have no doubt that Egypt would gladly offer to take them back.” We asked the leadership of the St. Louis Society to explain their reasons for the sale, including how it plans to use the proceeds, but did not receive a response. The board of directors is scheduled to meet Saturday.

Members of the St. Louis archaeological community are justly outraged that they weren’t consulted about the society’s decision. Many are now asking if this sale would cause the AIA to revoke the St. Louis Society’s charter — a potentially devastating blow to the St. Louis art and culture community.

Leadership in Boston has certainly taken note of the scheduled auction. According to the President of the AIA, Andrew Moore, “The AIA is reviewing a number of possible responses that are consistent with its regulations and values.” The St. Louis Society is a registered non-profit independent of the national AIA.

Why is the St. Louis society proceeding in the face of so much local and national opposition? It can’t be for lack of display space in the city. We’re confident that many St Louis institutions would gladly work with the society to house the artifacts, if not to adequately present the storied history of these items to a wider public. The society should halt the sale of its “treasure” immediately.

Douglas Boin and Thomas Finan are professors in the Department of History at St. Louis University

Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.