Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2018 Issue

Who Owns the Rosetta Stone?

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The Rosetta Stone.

There are few "manuscripts" (but not works on paper) from antiquity more important than the Rosetta Stone. Discovered in Egypt in 1799, the Rosetta Stone was the key to deciphering the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs, ancient writings that told the history of that land during the time of the pharaohs. Up to that time, this wealth of history remained totally incomprehensible to anyone from our times.

 

The writings themselves on the stone were not of monumental importance. It was a decree issued by the King in 196 B.C. What made it so important was that it was written in three languages, which included ancient Egyptian and Greek. Greek was understood by contemporary scholars. Since the decree was identical in each language, it allowed them to translate ancient Egyptian words into understandable Greek ones. It was the key that unlocked the mystery of all those previously incomprehensible Egyptian writings.

 

At the time of the Rosetta Stone's discovery, Egypt was occupied by France. Napoleon was out to make a name for himself by seizing the country from the Ottoman Empire. The future French leader brought all sorts of scholars along with him, including archaeologists, to prepare a detailed description of the land. His control of the country did not last long. He was forced to retreat in 1801 by the British, a defeat that did not disrupt his burgeoning career back home. By 1802, the Rosetta Stone was in the British Museum. It was one of countless artifacts removed from native countries by colonial powers. Whether such represents a legal transfer at the time or a looting of a nation's cultural heritage is a raging debate today. It concerns issues legalistic, cultural, ethical, and preservationist. This is not a debate we wish to wade into at this time.

 

Fifty years ago, concerns about the looting of ancient artifacts and cultural icons began to grow. The colonial era was effectively over, and the former colonies, having seen so many of their cultural icons removed in earlier eras, sought to protect those remaining. In 1970, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) adopted a resolution to protect such items from being removed from a country illicitly. Many countries responded with blanket laws making the removal of any such items illegal, thereby making removal of any and all such artifacts going forward illegal. The existence of any such law in itself provides the necessary proof that antiquities removed from that day forward must be returned. However, this resolution does not really address the issue of artifacts removed prior to 1970.

 

While the UNESCO resolution provided much assistance to nations in stopping ongoing looting, the major issue of that day, many of those countries are now looking farther back. After all, that was when many of the most important artifacts were taken, though under the cover of the laws of colonial authorities, whose rule was never accepted by the people of these lands. Egypt is one such country, and one of the items on their list is the Rosetta Stone. Egypt has been able to gather many such items back from the nations where they ended up. Foreign authorities and institutions have often been fairly cooperative. However, where they often draw the line is in returning the most important of artifacts, and few are more important than the Rosetta Stone.

 

Egypt has made numerous requests, but neither British authorities nor the British Museum have been receptive. Egypt at one point said they would settle for a three-month return as part of a major exhibition. The British Museum did not acquiesce to (fall for) that one. The Rosetta Stone remains at the museum where it is the most popular item on display.

 

Recently, Egypt's Minister of Antiquities, Khaled El-Enany, had to report on the futility of using the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 as a means to their end. Ahramonline, the English language version of Egypt's major newspaper, reported that El-Enany told the Members of Parliament, "The UNESCO agreement which Egypt signed in 1970 stipulates that an ownership document is a prerequisite in order to be officially able to recover smuggled antiquities. For this reason, we have not been able to recover the Rosetta Stone which was smuggled into England in the 19th century." Naturally, there is no contemporary document establishing Egyptian ownership since the authorities at that time were British.

 

El-Enany said that Egypt has recovered many artifacts and will continue to seek repatriation of others. My guess is the debate over ownership of this most important "manuscript" will go on indefinitely. It is hard to imagine either side blinking any time soon. A solution isn't obvious, but the likelihood of this debate going away appears small.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Doyle<br>Stage & Screen<br>Auction April 28</b>
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 12. OKLAHOMA! Celeste Holm's vocal score for Oklahoma! inscribed by Richard Rodgers. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 20. WILSON, DOOLEY. Fine inscribed photograph to Celeste Holm with Casablanca reference. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 79. Original production script of the Broadway musical CATS with notes written by Claude Tessier. $600 to $900.
    <center><b>Doyle<br>Stage & Screen<br>Auction April 28</b>
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 139. STEPHEN SONDHEIM. Autographed musical manuscript signed for "Broadway Baby" from Follies. $500 to $800.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 180.<br>Cecil Beaton. Headdress for Liza at the Ball, from My Fair Lady, circa 1962. $700 to $900.
    <b>Doyle, Stage & Screen:</b> Lot 177.<br>Cecil Beaton. Set Design for The Gainsborough Girls, 1951. $2,000 to $3,000.
  • <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 54. Fanciful engraving of earth's interior with magma core and errupting volcanoes (1682). $1500 to $1800.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 165. Rare state of Jefferys' influential map of New England in contemporary color (1755). $8000 to $9500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 177. Mouzon's foundation map of the Carolinas (1775). $10000 to $13000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 183. Very rare first state of De Fer's map of the Lower Mississippi Valley (1715). $20000 to $25000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 253. Scarce Scottish edition based on Ellicott's plan of Washington, D.C. (1796). $2400 to $3000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 313. Stunning view of Philadelphia by John Bachmann (1850). $3250 to $4250.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 338. Rare Civil War map based on Bucholtz map of Virginia (1862). $9500 to $12000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 667. First map to accurately show Luzon in Philippines (1590). $6000 to $7500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 682. Rare map of Shanghai International Settlement published just after WWI (1918). $7000 to $9000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 738. Coronelli's superb map of the Pacific showing the Island of California (1697) Est. $2400 - $3000
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 743. A cornerstone piece in the mapping of Australia and New Zealand (1726) Est. $6000 - $7500
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 781. An uncommon signature during Jefferson's Governorship of Virginia (1779) Est. $9500 - $11000
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Ronald Reagan. Series of 37 letters to Senator George Murphy, and related material, 1968-90. £50,000 to £70,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Chaim Weizmann. Autograph letter signed, to General Sir Gilbert Clayton, 6 September 1918. £20,000 to £30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Sir Winston Churchill. Autograph letter signed, to Pamela, Lady Lytton, 1942. £20,000 to $30,000.
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Oscar Wilde. Five autograph letters signed, to Alsager Vian, 1887. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Napoleon I. Letter signed to Admiral Ganteaume, ordering the invasion of England, 22 August 1805. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Emma Hamilton. Two autograph letter signed, to Catherine and George Matcham, 1805. £6,000 to £8,000.
  • <center><b>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>Timed auction, April 29</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1032. RATZER, BERNARD. Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1011. [BROADSIDE]. Life, Last Words and Dying Confession, of Rachel Wall... $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1055. BEATON, CECIL. Scrapbook prepared by Cecil Beaton over the period 1935-1944, with some later inclusions. $800 to $1,200.
    <center><b>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>Timed auction, April 29</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1051. ADDAMS, CHARLES. Original drawing "I hope the power doesn't go out until after Masterpiece Theatre." $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1037. The Campaign Speeches of Nixon of Kennedy, inscribed to William Safire by Richard Nixon and secretarially for John Kennedy. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1036. Celebration of the Commencement of Work on Rapid Transit Railroad. March 24th 1900, one o'clock, City Hall Park, New York. $200 to $300.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 1005. 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers signed baseball including Jackie Robinson. $3,000 to $5,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Frances Palmer, <i>Battle of Buena Vista,</i> chromolithograph, New York, 1847. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, the earliest publication concerned solely with chocolate, first edition, Madrid, 1631. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Romans Bernard, <i>An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17th, 1775,</i> engraving, 1776. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> <i>A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston,</i> English edition, London, 1770. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> William Soule, <i>Lodge of the Plains Indians,</i> albumen print, 1872. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Manuscript document to enforce New York’s “Agreement of Non-Importation” during the heyday of the Sons of Liberty, New York, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Clarence Mackenzie, <i>Drummer Boy of the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn,</i> salt print with applied color, 1861. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Moses Lopez, <i>A Lunar Calendar,</i> first Jewish calendar published in America, Newport, RI, 1806. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b><br>The Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $30,000 to $40,000.

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