Two diplomats, the Frenchman Bernadino Drovetti and the Englishman Henry Salt, used their private fortunes to buy up tremendous treasures. They dispatched agents around the country, convinced village elders to open old cemeteries and funded excavations from Thebes to Giza.
Later on, they sold their spoils to the highest bidders, which included kings, princes and museums in Europe.
It was not illegal. In fact, the principle "nulla poena sine lege" -- no penalty without a law -- applied. Hawass is also familiar with this legal principle.
This explains why the general of antiquities tends to use somewhat vague language to justify his claims. He says that what is at stake is a moral appeal and general redress. His message to the Western museums is clear: Hand over the six masterworks, and your crimes of the past will be forgiven.
But now that the new owners are turning a deaf ear to his demands, Hawass feels compelled to vent his rage and relate his notorious anecdotes.
For instance, this is what he recently had to say about the people at the British Museum in London: "They kept the Rosetta Stone in a dark, poorly lit room, until I showed up and asked for it back. Only then did they suddenly find the piece important."
The accuser from Cairo also adopted the wrong tone when discussing the Nefertiti bust. The German archeologists who found the work, he said, had deliberately smeared mud onto the bust of the beautiful pharaoh to mislead the Egyptian antiquities office.
Not a word of it is true. All records were properly signed.
Is the antiquities director taking things too far? Is he pursuing real claims, or is he merely interested in bullying his opponents? Who exactly is this man who, referring to his adversaries, says: "I will destroy anyone who attacks me?"
Hawass is reticent about his origins. He was born in a village in the Nile valley. His father died at an early age. Zahi had to help support the family.
He has nothing whatsoever to say about toiling in the fields, the filth in the streets and the poverty. He does recall, however, that he was a "famous football player" as a boy. And, he adds: "All the women loved me and wanted to marry me."
At 21, the young man took a job with the antiquities administration, which at the time was an enormous, sleepy government agency with no scientific competency.
His work there, he says, consisted of little more than working as a guard once in a while, locking warehouses and looking over the shoulders of the Western scientists.
In 1978, the inspector attended a Grateful Dead concert in front of the Sphinx. Many American dope-smoking hippies had traveled to Egypt to attend the concert.
The big step was next: America. Hawass attended the University of Pennsylvania for seven years, eventually earning his doctorate there.
When he returned to Egypt, he came armed with a new skill: the ability to chatter away in English. Egyptians saw him as a world traveler who had enjoyed the blessings of a higher form of existence in the United States.
Thus anointed, he quickly rose through the ranks. First he was appointed "General Director of Antiquities," then "Undersecretary of State" and, finally, "Secretary General."
He kept his old office, a corrugated sheet metal container with musty carpets and three telephones on the table. It was directly in the shadow of the pyramids.