A Cairo museum where a van Gogh heist took place in 2010 has reopened after more than a decade-long closure owing to renovations and security improvements.
The Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Giza features a personal collection of more than 300 paintings and 50 sculptures by some of the most famous artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries – including Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Auguste Rodin.
The reopening was inaugurated on April 4 by Minister of Culture Ines Abdel Dayem and is part of a comprehensive plan to develop and improve Egypt’s museums.
"The renovation was on several fronts, including the building itself and the security," museum director Tarek Maamoun tells The National.
The museum was originally a palace built in 1915 belonging to Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil and his French wife Emilienne Luce.
Khalil was a politician, serving as agriculture minister and speaker of the Egyptian senate, and an avid art collector. He co-founded the Society of Fine Arts Lovers in 1924 and served as its chairman. He met his wife in Paris, where he travelled to in 1897 to study law at the Sorbonne. Luce, who loved art and collecting art, instilled the same passion in him.
“Khalil was an exceptional personality,” Maamoun says. “He was one of the main reasons for the establishment of the Fine Arts Faculty, the oldest fine arts college in Egypt, and one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art.”
Before his death in 1953, Khalil left the house and its possessions to his wife. She in turn bequeathed it in her will to the Egyptian government, to be transformed into an art space. The museum opened for the first time in July 1962.
In 1971, the building's collection was transferred to the Prince Amr Ibrahim Palace in Zamalek temporarily, while then president Anwar El Sadat used the residence as executive offices. Six years later, a van Gogh painting, Poppy Flowers, was stolen from its temporary location; however, it was recovered 10 years later in Kuwait.
The museum was closed in 2010 shortly after the same painting – now valued at more than $50 million – was cut from its frame at Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum and stolen in broad daylight. It is still missing.
As a result, renovation of the museum's premises started in 2014. The works included installing more sophisticated security alarms – at the time of the 2010 theft, Egypt's top prosecutor said none of the alarms and only seven of 43 security cameras within the space were working.
Now, all of the museum’s paintings are surrounded by laser security alarms that go off if visitors get too close. On our recent visit, alarms sounded three times within the hour.
Security personnel in plain clothes also linger nearby and cameras can be seen pointing at every angle.
The white, four-storey building, which overlooks the Nile on its eastern side, has been given an Art Nouveau look, the ornate architectural style that became popular in the late 19th century. The northern side of the structure continues to feature a large stained-glass window painted in 1907.
The total area of the museum is 8,450 square metres, of which the building is approximately 540 square metres and the surrounding gardens 7,910. Three of its floors display paintings and sculptures, while the basement is being used for administrative offices, where it will eventually host workshops.
Its collection of paintings come mainly from French Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists, such as Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
However, the time period covered spans from the end of the 17th century to the first quarter of the 20th century. For example, the artworks include Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, French Romantic school leader Eugene Delacroix and landscape artist Jean-Charles Cazin. "Of course, there are museums like the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay and many other museums in Europe that display those artists. But there are missing parts of the history that are available here. And that's the importance of the Mahmoud Khalil Museum," Maamoun says.
The bronze, marble and gypsum statues include several by Rodin, including Call to Arms, The Thinker and Portrait Bust of Victor Hugo. Among the other well-known sculptors featured are Jean-Antoine Houdon and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
Other valuable artefacts displayed in the museum include rare boxes, tea sets, vases and miniature works from China, France, Japan and Iran.
Since the space reopened, it has received an average of 120 to 150 visitors daily, says Maamoun.
“That’s very good in terms of the average of visitors to art museums in Egypt, especially given Ramadan and corona,” Maamoun says.
Phillip Margolin, a New York Times bestselling author of legal thrillers, visited from the US with his wife, Melanie Nelson, while they were touring Jordan and Egypt.
"We were just thrilled to hear that the museum was opening up. The idea of fine art and in Cairo really excited us," Nelson, 70, tells The National. "The beauty of the home and the art collection is exceptional."
The last time Margolin, 77, visited Egypt was in 1967 while living in Liberia. He says he is impressed with the revamp of Cairo's museums.
"It used to look like a warehouse. Now it's really well-organised – they've done a beautiful job," he says.
Menna Ayman, 21, a physiotherapist and an Islamic calligraphy artist who lives in Cairo, says she has enjoyed visiting several of the city's art museums and encourages young people to do the same. "I love the paintings, the decor and the old piano," she says of the Mahmoud Khalil Museum.
For those who cannot make the trip in person, a virtual tour of the museum is available online.
Admission to the Mahmoud Khalil Museum is free until the end of Ramadan, from 10am-3pm. Virtual tours are available at fineart.gov.eg