Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Last Word


Egyptian antiquities in international museums amount to millions, with hundreds of thousands in the major museums in France, Italy, Germany, US, Austria and UK. Many were obtained years ago by buying from private sources or through the permit system. In Budge’s time collectors from many different Museums came to Egypt to collect legally or illegally and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. And it was easy. As in Budge’s case, if they couldn’t find what they wanted in the villages or in unofficial ‘digs’, they could simply buy it right off the shelf in local antique shops, which at that time were bulging with real antiquities. If they had problems getting things out of the country they simply used their Consuls, or local agents of their Consuls, to smooth the way diplomatically.

Sir Evelyn Baring the British Consul was of a different cut than the Consuls of other countries. He was determined that his countrymen would abide by the regulations and pay strict attention to the wishes of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Baring’s goal was to show the Egyptians what “order and good government” could achieve. And the British were to be the proper model to follow, that is, until he met Budge.
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Perhaps Baring would have gotten on better with Budge’s predecessor, Samuel Birch, a scholar who seldom traveled and never went to Egypt, instead he encouraged Egypt to come to him. Hundreds of people brought him coins, scarabs and other souvenirs of their trips out to Egypt to find out what they were. In the process Birch built up a historical framework without acquiring any large collection, and he encouraged people like Petrie to make drawings and impressions of monuments and bring back the small bits, like pottery shards, but major pieces stayed in place in the country. Budge, however was obsessive, he wanted it all.
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Looking back on his second trip to Egypt, I realized that all we have to go by is his own account in his 1920 autobiography, "By Nile and Tigris," in which Budge comes off like the guardian angel of antiquities. But I wonder if we are being setup. There were too many coincidences, too many things that stand out, local dealers and agents, contacts in shipping, telegraphic ‘back channels,’ military and the media, diversionary stories, stealth, safe houses, military transport and cover to conceal “...our operations...”!

A docudrama called “The Egyptian Book of the Dead” produced for TV in 2005 by the History Channel featured Budge’s theft of the Papyrus of Ani. In it Budge is portrayed as someone who improvises and succeeds by chance, someone who muddles through. But as I look back on what he did, it all reads like a well-planned, covert operation, premeditated and carried out with precision. The only hitch was the impoundment of the booty in Luxor. That required a tunnel to be dug by his cohorts in crime into the basement to retrieve it, like something from The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen and James Garner sitting at the bar of the Luxor Hotel making believe nothing is happening as they, along with the Stalag guards, ignore the obvious sounds of shovels digging under their feet!

Is it no wonder that Budge was later suspected of spying for the British Army in the Sudan. No doubt when he was there carried out excavations he was able to provide a wealth of information under cover of his civilian archeologist status. Remember Colin Firth in The English Patient.
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So now he goes off to Baghdad and later comes back to London and glory, and as for the Egyptians, well, if we go by Budge’s account, they got what they deserved. End of story.

But it didn’t end there. Budge boasted about his success, “...and all Luxor rejoiced,” and he also went out of his way to let everyone know that his actions would result in careful and reverent attention being paid to the objects that he had acquired using dubious and illegal methods. He also maintained to the end that he had done no more than what was needed, according to him any and all archeologists would do the same. “The outcry against the archeologists is foolish,” he says, “and the accusations made against him are absurd.” But, as Brian Fagan noted in his book, Rape of the Nile, “Budge flattered himself that he had the moral right on his side and that looting Egyptian sites was entirely legitimate.”

In most cases when Budge was buying things, he never bothered to question the ownership, or determine if they were original finds by the owner of the land or legally bought second-hand or even stolen goods. In one case it is certain that he went ahead and bought an item knowing that it was stolen property. Budge’s methods are clear examples of what Brian Fagan in 1975 called “models of illegal purchase.”

Legal title was the last thing on Budge’s mind. He was more worried about moving the items out of Egypt using his own carefully crafted methods. In the case of the Papyrus of Ani, however, he became involved in things that were completely different from anything he had done previously. Though bought from a local dealer, the Papyrus of Ani was confiscated by the police and thereby became official evidence, so when Budge removed it from a locked basement with the clear intent of smuggling it out of the country, he compounded the crime which was clearly one of theft. He tried to justify his action by bringing support to bear from a third party, into whose mouth he puts what seems like a bit of creative non-fiction.

“I think I can help you, and I will. As you have bought these things which you say are so valuable for the British Museum, and they are to be paid for with public money, they are clearly the property of the British Government, and they must be put into a place of safety as soon as possible.”

It is difficult to think that anyone like Major Hepper would be so unfortunate as to have to speak like that. It sounds very much like he had training in what the Voice of America used to call, “Special English.” The dialogue is just too unreal, even for Budge.
Worse was yet to come. After his first few trips, Customs officers routinely searched him and his luggage whenever he left Egypt. From his own admission Budge had no qualms about cutting up priceless papyri, such as the Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens and the Odes of Bacchylides in order to send them by mail to avoid the law. He cut both priceless documents into sections in order to place them between layers of photographs, and then mailed them after he wrapped them in gaudy colored paper “which the Cairo shopkeepers used for wrapping up the purchases of customers.”

When he “acquired” larger papyri they were cut by Museum staff under his supervision. In1893, Mr. H. Spencer, for example, reported that he had unrolled a total of 400 papyrus rolls in the Museum’s collection, including the Papyrus of Ani, for the purpose of cutting them up and mounting them behind glass. In the 2005 History Channel docudrama, following a scene worthy of Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands, James Wasserman notes that Budge unfortunately had the original papyrus cut using the basic “yardstick” method – dividing it into thirty-seven sheets of relatively even length. “The result was to disfigure the flow of the original scroll.”

Carol Andrews in the preface to James Wasserman’s 1994 book The Egyptian Book of the Dead, said, “...the original papyrus roll...for the sake of convenience of storage and display was divided into thirty-seven framed and glassed sheets, varying in length from 52 cm to 76 cm, the norm being between 65 cm and 70 cm. Budge was sometimes influenced in cutting the roll by what he considered a natural break in the frieze of vignettes – even if this led to the text of a chapter being on different sheets. At other times the layout of the text was considered of greater importance, and as a result vignettes have been segmented, some even separated from their relevant chapter. Moreover, as the divisions progressed there came points where, unless the sheets produced were to be abnormally short or long, large-scale vignettes were cut in two.”

She then detailed fifteen of the most damaging examples of this process, a process that was described by James Wasserman in the docudrama as follows, “When he got it back to the British Museum, he cut it into sections that he could work with. He arranged to have it pasted to wooden boards so that it could be translated. From a technological point of view one can almost forgive him, but, on the other hand, he destroyed the integrity of the papyrus forever.”

It’s often said in Budgie’s defense that he wasn’t alone. Many others were taking items out of Egypt illegally. The difference between Budge and all the others is that in his autobiography he brazenly described how he did it. His 900 page book was only matched by the 2,500 page diary of Jonathan Tokeley, a modern day antiquities smuggler whose diary was used to convict a major New York dealer of dealing in stolen antiquities (Rescuing the Past, 2006). It isn’t often that tomb robbers are identified by pointing fingers at themselves, but it does happen.

Clearly Budge had always intended to smuggle these items out and he would go to extraordinary lengths to do so. As we have seen, this is not a bit of ‘hanky panky,’ of the sort when you are given a customs form on your flight back to the States after a heady vacation in Paris, and where it says, “total value of all goods you or any family members traveling with you have purchased or acquired abroad,” you write “none” knowing those bits of jewelry and that special watch you sequestered deep inside your dirty underwear are worth more than the undeclared limit.
It is not even a case of monetary value, because what we are talking about was and still is priceless by any measure. The problem is that Budge knew what he had, and he still acted as if he were just an ordinary bloke who happens across a good deal in an antique shop. For that reason, Budge was called a thief in 2006 by none other than Jonathan Tokeley. If anyone should know a thief of Egyptian antiquities, it would be Tokeley, the notorious British antiquities restorer and smuggler of record, who teamed up with the famous N.Y. antique dealer, Frederick Schultz, to run a multimillion dollar racket in Egyptian antiques.

It is obvious from Tokeley’s Rescuing the Past that he was amazed that a senior official of the British Museum was reduced by circumstances and driven by the collecting frenzy of the 1890’s to commit house breaking, stealing antiquities from the Egyptian Government and dealing in stolen goods. Worse than that, as Tokeley pointed out (and is clearly set out in Budge’s autobiography) was Budge’s open contempt for the Egyptian Antiquities Service. This must have left the Museum with a legacy of scorn that would be difficult to live down, as over a period of twenty-five years Budge would acquire 47,000 artifacts from ancient Egypt, and he thumbed his nose at anyone who lifted an eyebrow.

In his day Budge was forced out of the business by economic pressure, the market became too competitive and officials more alert to smuggling. Also, as Fagan concludes, “much progress has been made in exposing the evils of the international antiquities trade,” but, he cautions, “as long as there is a demand, there will be people to fill it.”

Now with tourism making up such an important part of the Egyptian economy, and the Egyptian national patrimony becoming the lifeblood of the country, they are even more willing to fight for it. So, watch out Budge, they want them back.
© Copyright J. Gaudet, 2009, all rights reserved.

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