Family feuds, theft of masterpieces

Mr & Mrs Khalil Museum of Fine Art, Cairo. © Charlie Phillips 2010

I read yesterday that officials at the Egyptian ministry of culture had been prosecuted for negligence, following the theft of a Van Gogh from the Mr and Mrs Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo. When I visited the Khalil museum, I commented at the time on the lack of security provisions. Below is an extract about this great little place, from my 2006 Cairo dairy…

For more details on the story of the theft, click on the BBC link at the bottom of this article.

“Family feuds”

“The Museum of Mr and Mrs Mahmoud Khalil is nearby, and is kept in pristine condition, almost as a kind of cultural counterpoint to the Agricultural Museum. It started life as a collection in a private residence of Mr and Mrs Khalil, built around 1920. Mr Khalil was a prominent figure in the Egyptian fine art world, and went to Paris in 1901 to study law. In Paris he met a much younger French student, Mademoiselle Emeline Lock, who was studying at the Paris Music Conservatoire, and through a shared love of art their relationship blossomed, resulting in marriage just a couple of years later in 1903. The story goes that the couple fell out dramatically after the birth of their son, and the family feud must have been serious. Mr Khalil died years before his wife, who then rewrote her own will so that on her death in 1960 the house and its treasures were granted to the state, rather than into the hands of her son.

The building is a beautiful 19th century French columned villa in an idyllic setting, in a little park with direct views over the Nile. Apart from a couple of broken stair rods, it was exactly like being in the immaculate residence of a French expat, with light, open rooms and clean white walls inlaid with gold, and the lightest hint of floor polish in the air. The art collection is remarkable, and very different from anything else in Cairo. Rodin sculptures of Victor Hugo, Monet canvasses, a Van Gogh, and all sorts of other staggering works of art are arranged through the corridors and rooms of the house. Three young ladies sat at reception, and diligently checked my ID as I handed my bag over to them for safekeeping. They asked me where I was from, what I was doing in Cairo, and I found out they were art students, who were very happy to be working at the collection. They were extremely polite, but were careful to radio ahead to their colleagues upstairs that a visitor was on his way up. I noticed the thick and very firmly locked security glass over all the exterior windows, but the exhibits inside were just standing in full view, and were not protected at all, perhaps out of financial necessity, but possibly also out of trust. I had heard that the place has been raided by thieves twice since being opened to the public, but with a twist that only happen in Cairo. The first raid saw a number of extremely valuable paintings being carried off; the second raid saw them all returned. We can only hope that the security glass will help the museum survive the fatwa on sculptures.”

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