Culture Minister: Van Gogh painting theft ‘no big deal’

Culture Minister Farouk Hosni on Tuesday downplayed the importance of the theft last month of Vincent Van Gogh's "Poppy Flowers" painting from a Cairo museum, saying it was "not a big deal."

"The Egyptian public is very emotional," he said at a press conference at Cairo's Al-Jazira Museum. "But the theft of a painting is not a big deal."

Nor, Hosni added, did the ministry blame Mohsen Shaalan, head of its fine arts department–currently under investigation in connection with the theft–for the painting's disappearance.

"The law will determine who's right and who's wrong," said the minister. "He was involved in many other transgressions and we could have accused him of a lot more."

"On 16 May, four paintings were stolen from the Modern Arts Museum in Paris, including a painting by Picasso, and nothing happened," Hosni added. "No one called for the dismissal of the French culture minister. Investigations were launched and those responsible were punished."

"Many countries lose valuables, but this doesn't mean all Egyptian museums are in poor condition," he said. "The Poppy Flowers case is now in the hands of the court, and its better we don't speak about it so as not to influence ongoing investigations."

"I was responsible for the creation and opening of the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum [from which the painting was stolen]," he said, noting that the museum had been "equipped with the most up-to-date security equipment available."

"But its operation was the responsibility of museum administrators and of those who have proven themselves incapable of handling such a responsibility," the minister added.

Hosni went on to say it would cost LE100,000 to repair the museum's surveillance systems.

"There had been a plan to restore the museum, and the Al-Jazira Museum's storage rooms had been ready since January to temporarily house the Mahmoud Khalil paintings until work had been completed," he explained. "It was the administration's responsibility, and they should have utilized the resources available to them."

"Due to fears of individual negligence, we're thinking about setting up a central control room in all Egyptian museums," he added. "It will be costly, but we have no other choice if we want to avert cases of human negligence."

The Minister went on to display a crate filled with Arabic calligraphy paintings known as "Khabiat al-Ghori." 

"There was much ado about the loss of  these paintings, which include 80 Arabic calligraphy paintings," he said. "But we eventually found them in the Al-Jazira Museum after inventory was taken."

According to Hosni, the museum–which is home to some four million pieces of art–is currently being renovated at a cost of LE70 million, but would soon be reopened to the public.

The minister went on to criticize the Independent Conference of Intellectuals, which had called for his dismissal following the Van Gogh theft.

"No one should call themselves an intellectual," he said. "An intellectual should be familiar with different cultures and be knowledgeable about all eras and phases of art history."

Translated from the Arabic Edition.

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