United States returns ancient artifacts to Egypt at National Geographic Society

WASHINGTON – The U.S. government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) repatriated dozens of illegally smuggled ancient artifacts to the government of Egypt, including a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, at a ceremony yesterday at the National Geographic Society in Washington. The return of these ancient artifacts was made possible by “Operation Mummy’s Curse,” an ongoing five-year investigation by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) targeting an international criminal network that illegally smuggled and imported more than 7,000 cultural items from around the world.

“Preserving mankind’s cultural heritage is an increasingly difficult challenge in today’s society. To think that some of these treasured artifacts were recovered from garages, exposed to the elements, is unimaginable,” said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña. “It is an honor for ICE to investigate these kinds of cases and to assist other countries in preserving their heritage.”

On Sept. 8, 2009, HSI New York recovered the nesting sarcophagus from a garage in Brooklyn, New York. One year later, on Sept. 24, 2010, following leads from the Brooklyn case, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport seized a shipment of smuggled Egyptian goods, including a funerary boat model and figurines. A related December 2010 shipment interception netted agents 638 ancient coins from different countries, 65 of which were repatriated to Egypt yesterday.

“I am very pleased to see these items finally returned to their rightful home,” said U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Stephen Beecroft. “The repatriation of these treasures is another example of our ongoing close cooperation with the government of Egypt to protect its cultural heritage.”

Other antiquities returned include two Middle Kingdom wooden boat models and a series of finely carved limestone reliefs from an Egyptian temple.

“[I would like to express my] heartfelt gratitude of the government and people of Egypt to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and in particular to the agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the recovery and repatriation of these priceless artifacts,” said Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik.

The ongoing investigation has identified a criminal network of smugglers, importers, money launderers, restorers and purchasers who used illegal methods to avoid detection as these items entered the United States. Items and funds were traced back to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Iraq and other nations.

“These artifacts will provide the Egyptian people a key to their past,” said Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske. “U.S. Customs and Border Protection is pleased to work in partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce U.S. customs law and to return priceless artifacts to their lawful owner.”

ICE has returned more than 80 items to Egypt in four repatriations since 2007. ICE has returned more than 7,800 artifacts to over 30 countries, since 2007, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria, 15th-18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq, two Baatar dinosaur fossils to Mongolia and most recently antiquities and Saddam Hussein-era objects returned to Iraq.

“National Geographic has supported efforts like this for many years, providing expertise on how to identify artifacts and archaeological context for the items confiscated,” said National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell. “Preserving the world’s cultural heritage has always been and will continue to be a priority for National Geographic. It is so gratifying to see these amazing artifacts returned to their rightful home in Egypt.”