Minneapolis-based U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield keeps close eye on museum looting in Egypt, Libya

A pyramid in the heavily looted area of Dahshur.
A pyramid in the heavily looted area of Dahshur.

Corine Wegener is kind of the Clark Kent of museum work. By day, she's an associate curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The rest of the time, she heads up the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield--a part of an international partnership tasked with protecting cultural property in times of armed conflict.

Recent events in the Middle East have kept her and her international colleagues particularly busy, as they attempt to mitigate the effects of looting in one of the most archeologically rich parts of the world.

"These objects, the reason to take them is to illicitly sell them," she says. "It's a business. It's a black market."

Wegener first got involved with protecting works of art in the early years of the Iraq War. A major with the U.S. Army Reserve, she was sent to Baghdad in 2003 to assist after the looting of the Iraqi National Museum. She was shocked by what she found there.

"I was really disappointed by the response from my colleagues," she says. "We didn't have any international organization come to help after the looting."

Little effort had been made to guard the museum. There was no military protocol for dealing with the looting. It was extremely difficult for conservators to gain access to the country. As a result, many artifacts were smuggled out of the country; some were even recovered in New York City.

But despite all her criticisms, one thing stuck out to her--the 1954 Hague Convention had a provision for just this type of work. It designated that a body be created called the Blue Shield in order to prevent the kind of plunder that took place in World War II, when many artworks were stolen and sold across borders. There was just one problem: The U.S. had never ratified that part of the treaty.

"That was pointed out to me many, many times," she says. "I was so surprised."

Upon her return to Minneapolis, Wegener set about rectifying that. The treaty was finally ratified in 2009, and Wegener opened the first U.S. committee. They were especially involved in Haiti, securing and storing important cultural works from museums after the devastating earthquake.

Things have gotten particularly heated since the protests in the Middle East, and through the Blue Shield, Wegener has had an interesting front row seat.

"There are always bad people who will take advantage of a bad situation, particularly in Egypt," she says.

Although she and her international counterparts are hearing that the museums in Tunisia and Libya are being left untouched, the same has not been true in Egypt. Just last month a delegation from the Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield went to Egypt to report on the status of the nation's most important museums and archeological sites. Wegener received daily email updates from the team.

A damaged padlock caused by looters in Saqqara.
A damaged padlock caused by looters in Saqqara.

There, says Wegener, they found mixed news. Although the small team was intially denied access to museums in Saqqara, a meeting with Minister of Antiquities Dr. Zahi Hawass smoothed the way at other sites. They discovered a huge amount of looting had taken place at a storage facility in Dahshur, where the walls and doors had been recently bricked up and spent ammunition shells littered the ground. They found broken locks on tombs in Saqqara, heard of illegal digging at an archeological site in Abu Sir, and toured a seemingly unscathed museum in Memphis. Wegener was particularly heartened to hear tales of protesters actually guarding museums themselves in Cairo.

"People really understood," she says. "They said, 'This is not Baghdad. We protect our heritage.' So that really stood out to me."

Illegal digging was reported at this archeological site in Abu Sir.
Illegal digging was reported at this archeological site in Abu Sir.

Moving forward, Wegener says the biggest trouble is finding out what is missing. Dr. Hawass has been accused of downplaying the amount of looting. Late last week Hawass resigned, saying he is being falsely accused of smuggling items out himself. Before leaving, he confirmed the Egyptian Museum had been looted, along with several storage sites and pharaonic sites.

Wegener says Hawass's contradictory reports have been problematic, as the Blue Shield tries to prevent the missing objects from leaving the country. Descriptions have been vague and the number of items missing has fluctuated daily. Now that Hawass has left his post, there's more uncertainty than ever.

"We in the international community can ensure that at customs points those things don't leave Egypt and come into other countries once we have a detailed description of what's missing," she says. "We kind of need to get that information out there."

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