CAIRO — Many relics from ancient Egypt remain in foreign museums and Cairo is struggling to persuade other countries to send them back, like France which agreed to return a set of 3,000-year-old wall painting fragments.
"It is the Egyptian people's right to see works of art from their country's civilisation," said Abdel Halim Nureddin, a former head of Egypt's antiquities authority.
The vast majority of Egyptians "do not have the money for a plane ticket to see the Rosetta Stone in London," he said.
A special commission of the French museums' agency decided on Friday to hand over the five fragments after ruling that they were stolen in the 1980s before ending up at the Louvre in 2000 and 2003.
But a number of the world's most famous museums are clinging on to collections of priceless Egyptian antiquities from the time of the Pharoahs, many of them acquired during British colonial rule.
The Rosetta Stone, famous for helping the understanding of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics by showing the same information in three different scripts, has been on display at the British Museum since soon after its 1799 discovery.
Cairo wants that back and is also seeking the return from Berlin of the 34-centuries-old bust of Queen Nefertiti that was discovered on the banks of the Nile.
Other artefacts that Egypt would like to regain include the Dendera Zodiac from the Louvre, a bust of pyramid builder Ankhaf from the Boston Museum of Fine Art, and a statue of architect Hemiunu, currently in the Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany.
France decided to return the wall painting pieces after Zawi Hawass, the current head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, announced on Wednesday that Cairo was halting cooperation with the Louvre until the relics were sent back.
Egypt has previously severed relations with other museums, including St Louis in the United States, but it was the first time it had taken a stand against an institution as prestigious as the Louvre.
The fragments, known as steles, "must return to Egyptian territory" because they are "part of the cultural heritage" and are "very important from a scientific viewpoint," said Jihane Zaki, director of international cooperation at the antiquities authority.
The relics, from the tomb of an 18th dynasty dignitary in the Valley of the Kings, "should never have left their place of origin," Louvre president Henri Loyrette admitted.
The victory owes much to a campaign by Hawass, who has fought since his appointment in 2002 for the return of Egyptian antiquities.
"Everything which was stolen from us should be given back," he demanded in January.
However, the restitution of the fragments, measuring 15 centimetres (six inches) wide and 30 cm (one foot) high, does not necessarily herald the return of the other more significant artefacts.
"Everyone agrees on the principle" that Egypt should have control of all historic relics, but the "procedures are debatable," according to a European diplomat in Cairo.
The museums base their approach on the 1970 UNESCO convention on illicit trafficking in works of art, which exempts transfers carried out before the convention was drawn up.
For instance, Hass says the bust of Nefertiti was covered in clay and shipped secretly to Germany following its discovery by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in December 1912.
But Berlin insists it acquired the bust legally in 1913 and says any relocation of the "fragile" sculpture would be risky.
Egypt has threatened to refuse to allow other antiquities to be taken to Germany unless Nefertiti is sent on loan, but the stand has so far been ineffective.
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