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Britain Returns Egyptian Sculpture

January 21, 2000

LONDON (AP) _ She came in disguise, but ultimately there was no hiding her true royal character.

After painstaking research, Britain on Friday returned a valuable 13th century B.C. sculpture of the head of an ancient Egyptian queen, stolen a decade ago by a British antiquities smuggler.

The marble head of Nefertari, principal queen of Ramses II, was disguised as a cheap tourist souvenir to smuggle it out of Egypt in the early 1990s.

The Egyptian government went to court in Britain to pursue the private dealer who later bought the piece, but he maintained he didn’t have to return it because it was a fake.

Tests by the British Museum proved it was genuine and the man relinquished it.

``The return of the head today represents a further step″ in the two countries’ efforts to stamp out ``the illegal and sinister trade of cultural artifacts,″ Egyptian Ambassador Adel El-Gazzar said at the handover at the museum.

He said Egypt considers such ancient splendors ``a heritage for all humanity.″

British police say the international trade in looted antiquities is worth $160 million a year, and that many pieces are stolen for the purpose of laundering money.

Vivian Davies, curator of the British Museum’s Egyptian department, said the head was ``a substantial Egyptian antiquity″ but would not say how much it is worth.

In its original state, it would have had a gilded bronze feather headdress up to 3 feet high and it would have been set in ``a major temple in Egypt,″ Davies said.

Briton Jonathan Tokeley-Parry was sentenced to six years in prison in 1997 for smuggling in the piece and other precious artifacts.

``The whole issue about whether it should be returned to Egypt was pinned on whether it was an original because its owner claimed that it was a fake,″ said museum spokeswoman Frances Dunkel. ``We have been able to prove that it was an original.″

The owner was not identified.

Museum director Dr. Robert Anderson said the case has no parallels with the disputed Elgin Marbles, sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, which Greece wants the museum to return.

Anderson said the marbles were brought to Britain ``as an act of preservation″ in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

In the case of the Nefertari statue, museum experts using microscopes and ultraviolet light discovered the face had been covered with stone drilled out of the core of the piece.

The new face was painted and artificially ``aged″ to give it a weathered and damaged appearance.

Under ultraviolet light the lines between bits of stone on the new face became evident, and the face and neck appeared as a patchwork of stone sections. Restoration work will be left to experts in Egypt.

Experts say the head, with a small section of shoulders and chest, was broken off from a nearly life-size statue. The head is made of gray and white marble.

The smaller temple at Abu Simbel is dedicated to Nefertari, who lived from around 1300 B.C. to 1250 B.C.

Her elaborate rock tomb was the largest and most beautifully decorated in the Valley of the Queens, lined with magnificent wall paintings that have been restored by the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles.

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