British Museum bought Egyptian artefact from antiques dealer with conviction for smuggling

Examples of shabti figurines which are typically found in ancient Egyptian tombs
Examples of shabti figurines which are typically found in ancient Egyptian tombs - Amir Makar/Getty Images

The British Museum has been accused of purchasing an ancient Egyptian artefact from a convicted smuggler without carrying out adequate checks.

The shabti, a mummiform figurine typically found in ancient Egyptian tombs, was acquired in 2017 from Mousa Khouli, also known as Morris Khouli.

The New York antiques dealer pleaded guilty in 2012 to buying and smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the United States and making false declarations to customs about the country of origin and value of the items.

Earlier this year, 64 relief carved stone heads linked to Khouli were among smuggled cultural property seized by US law enforcement officials and returned to the Republic of Yemen.

Morris Khouli was convicted of smuggling in 2012
Morris Khouli was convicted of smuggling in 2012 - LinkedIn

The allegation that the British Museum’s shabti came from a convicted dealer was exposed this week in an investigation by The National, the Middle Eastern newspaper, and Angelika Hellweger, a lawyer and art crime expert at the London firm Rahman Ravelli.

Ms Hellweger told The Telegraph that she was all the more astonished to discover that the British Museum had apparently relied on scans of ownership records provided by a criminal whose convictions include making false statements. A four-page Arabic document was said to record the purchase of the artefact in 1946 by an Egyptian man, who then took it to Brooklyn.

‘Red flags’ and ‘ethical questions’

Scans of original documents cannot be verified, she argued.

She said that “red flags” should have been raised over such an individual, particularly as he would have been known within the small antiquities community.

She added that there is an “ethical question” over whether the British Museum should acquire works from convicted dealers: “Even convicted art dealers can do deals that are completely fine and legitimate - I’m not saying that everything this gentleman is selling is tainted - but it requires increased due digilence by the British Museum and an explanation on why they acquired it.”

Rick St Hilaire, a lawyer and former chief prosecutor in the US, told the National: “If I’m a general counsel advising a museum and we know that a dealer offering an archaeological object for sale has a criminal background related to antiquities trafficking like smuggling, trade fraud or theft, then I would say just stay away from it. It’s too risky, and why invite reputational harm?”

Google search would have alerted museum

Christopher Marinello, a leading expert in recovering stolen, looted and missing works of art, said that a simple Google search would have alerted them to the US Attorney’s Office Press Release and Forfeiture Notice dated April 18, 2012 regarding their seller.

The revelation comes as the beleaguered British Museum is facing the scandal of the theft of up to 2,000 ancient artefacts, which led to the resignation of its director Hartwig Fischer.

The British Museum’s shabti is not on display and is in a secure storage facility.

One source suggested that the museum is considering returning it to Egypt, among other options.

Its online cataloguing states that the wooden figurine, which is 15cm tall, dates from the 13th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (c1756 - c1630 BCE).

The description notes that the figure has large eyes with heavy lids and an “unsmiling mouth”: “The figure is represented shrouded and mummiform.”

The online entry also records that it was bought in 2017 from Mr Khouli’s Palmyra Heritage Gallery.

Although he had faced up to 20 years in prison, he received a year’s probation, six months of home confinement and 200 hours of community service, The National reported.

The British Museum declined to reveal the purchase price or a photograph. Shabtis have generally sold for thousands or tens of thousands. Without seeing an image, experts could not specify its possible value, but they suggested it was likely to be the lower end, if only because the museum’s purchase funds are limited.

A British Museum spokeswoman said: “Establishing the provenance of an object is an integral part of the museum’s acquisition process. We have been offering assistance to the US authorities in New York with enquiries since 2019. It would be inappropriate to comment further while these remain ongoing.”