Two mosque lamps stolen from Egypt's national collection returned to Cairo

Medieval artefacts surfaced in the United Arab Emirates

Two valuable Medieval mosque lamps that were stolen from the Egyptian national collection and put up for sale in the Gulf have been returned to the country from the United Arab Emirates.  

The Art Newspaper first reported the suspected thefts in 2014, after photographs of several lamps, one appearing to carry an Egyptian museum label, were circulated among collectors in London, the Gulf and Istanbul. 

One Gulf collector had paid £500,000 for one of the lamps while an Abu Dhabi buyer was said to have purchased a second. After lengthy negotiations they were officially returned to Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities in a ceremony in Cairo this month.

A photograph of a Syrian dealer apparently sitting holding two of the lamps, with a third between his feet, has been passed to the Egyptian authorities, the Art Newspaper has learned.   

One of the 14th-century lamps bore the selehdar or sword-bearer's symbol while the other is identified with the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo. Investigations confirmed they had been stolen from storage rooms and replaced with replicas. They are now part of the collection of the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, where two curators were subsequently reported to have been arrested.  

The Sultan Hassan mosque lamp was recognised from an image in the historical catalogue of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. Similar lamps have sold for close to £2m at auction. A third missing lamp was recovered in London in 2015.   

Cairo has a prized collection of 14th-century Mamluk mosque lamps. Made of glass, enameled, and gilded, they are one of the iconic forms of Islamic art. But several lamps were among the items reported destroyed when a bomb hit the Islamic museum amid the chaotic conditions following the Arab Spring protests that toppled the Egyptian government. 

This month, the US signed a memorandum of understanding with Egypt to restrict the import of illicit antiquities from Egypt. Four objects had already been repatriated to Egypt from the US, Cairo’s Al Ahram Weekly reported, including a child’s sarcophagus and a mummified hand seized by customs officers at Los Angeles International Airport.

Doris Behrens-Abouseif, the London-based scholar and a leading authority on the Mamluk period, lead efforts to have the lamps returned to Cairo. She reported the items to Interpol and the Art Loss Register after she was consulted on the lamps by a dealer.   

It was only pressure from the public and press that forced the authorities into admitting the theft had taken place, she says, voicing fears that other stolen items are on the market.  “I assume there are many more things but these are ones by pure accident I learned about,” she says.