Sponsor of Tut exhibit defuses tension with loan to museum

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A Chicago executive who found himself in unexpectedly hot water over antiquities this week defused a potentially sensitive international incident Thursday by offering to relinquish possession of an ancient Egyptian coffin.

Exelon CEO John Rowe, an amateur historian, has long kept a 2,600-year-old Egyptian sarcophagus in his office, bought in 1998 from a Chicago antiquities dealer. But he came under sudden attack for this Wednesday at a preview event for "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," the blockbuster King Tut exhibit opening today at the Field Museum, of which Exelon is a major sponsor.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities -- known for his fiery nationalism and improvisational speaking style -- said from the podium at the Field that Rowe's sarcophagus should be sent to a museum or repatriated to Egypt.

"Antiquities should be in museums," Hawass said, "not in people's homes."

On Thursday, he followed up with a blistering letter to the Field urging it to remove Exelon as a sponsor of the Tut exhibit. But the point was moot because, the same day, Rowe offered to send the sarcophagus to the museum on indefinite loan.

The Field immediately accepted and will move quickly to find a place to display the piece as part of its permanent collection of Egyptian artifacts, said Patricia Kremer, the museum's director of public relations.

That seemed to satisfy Hawass, who said he was "very happy" with the news. "Mr. Rowe deserves a big thank you from me."

Still, the flurry of events left open the question of whether certain antiquities, especially those associated with funerals and religious rites, can be ethically owned by private individuals rather than museums. There is no commonly shared code of ethics on the issue, but at least one antiquities expert dismissed Hawass' criticism of Rowe.

"If it's morally wrong to have a sarcophagus, everybody's immoral throughout the world," said Ashton Hawkins, a New York-based attorney who specializes in art law and for decades has counseled the Metropolitan Museum of Art on antiquities issues. "Sarcophagi are on display in every country where the funerary arts have been practiced."

Rowe bought his sarcophagus from Harlan J. Berk, who owns an antiquities and coins dealership at 31 N. Clark and who purchased the object from the Nefer gallery in Zurich, Switzerland. Berk said it had housed not a king, but a middle-class person.

In a recent interview, Rowe spoke about the coffin and the mythology of Osiris, god of the underworld, and Isis, whose images are painted on it.

"Osiris is generally thought of as a benevolent deity who was killed by his wicked brother, Seth, the god of discord," Rowe explained. "And then in order that he wouldn't be properly resurrected, Seth cut his body into parts and distributed them around Egypt. Isis reassembled the pieces and got herself pregnant on the reassembled remains."

Berk said there are probably 10,000 to 20,000 of this type of sarcophagus in existence. They cost about $40,000 to $50,000 each, he said.

There's nothing wrong with anyone owning objects of ancient art, Berk said. "Collectors take very, very good care of objects they own, in many cases better than museums because museums have so much."

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