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US Repatriates Ancient Artifacts to Egypt

  • Cecily Hilleary

Ancient mummified hand recovered during ICE HSI's Operation Mummy's Hand. (Courtesy: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

A mummy’s hand disguised as a science fiction movie prop is one of several artifacts that U.S. Customs officials have returned to Egypt as part of a crackdown on illegal smuggling and sales of antiquities, dubbed "Operation Mummy's Curse" by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“While we recognize that cultural property, art and antiquities are assigned a dollar value in the marketplace, the cultural and symbolic worth of these Egyptian treasures far surpasses any monetary value to the people of Egypt,’ ICE Director Sarah Saldaña said during a repatriation ceremony at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on December 1.

ICE Director Sarah Saldaña & Ambassador Yasser Reda during a repatriation ceremony at the Egyptian Embassy, Dec. 1, 2016. (Courtesy: U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement)
ICE Director Sarah Saldaña & Ambassador Yasser Reda during a repatriation ceremony at the Egyptian Embassy, Dec. 1, 2016. (Courtesy: U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement)

Egypt’s Ambassador Yasser Reda thanked Saldaña, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement "for the recovery and repatriation of these priceless artifacts."

“The tireless work of these men and women may often go unseen. But it is nothing short of vital for the preservation of ancient cultures from around the world," Reda said.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in Washington for a series of meetings with government officials, expressed his gratitude in a statement as well.

“Each of the artifacts returned today tells a story – a human story, our story,” Shoukry said. “History comes alive when someone is able to not only read about the past, but is also able to visit the historical sites, watch and enjoy the artifacts, appreciate the images and see the actual writings of our ancestors.”

Five recovered artifacts were put on a final display at the embassy before making their journey home. They included a child’s sarcophagus, which had been discovered in a garage in Brooklyn, N.Y.; a mummy’s shroud, and a limestone carving of an Egyptian temple.

Shown, one of five artifacts returned to Egypt during a ceremony at the Egyptian Embassy, Washington, D.C., Dec. 1, 2016. (Courtesy: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Shown, one of five artifacts returned to Egypt during a ceremony at the Egyptian Embassy, Washington, D.C., Dec. 1, 2016. (Courtesy: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

ICE said that Operation Mummy’s Curse has so far resulted in four indictments, two convictions, nearly two dozen search warrants, and 16 seizures worth $3 million. The agency is also seeking an international fugitive involved in the case, a Jordanian man in Dubai.

A day before the artifacts were returned, Shoukry met with Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department, signing a landmark bilateral cultural agreement that seeks to discourage trafficking in antiquities. The agreement calls for the U.S. to impose import restrictions on Egyptian archaeological material dating from 5200 B.C. through 1517 A.D.

“I think it’s a good moment for Egypt, the United States, for the region, for us to make it clear that these antiquities are priceless treasures that do not belong to traffickers and crooks and should not be sold illegally and bought by wealthy people to hide away somewhere,” Kerry said.

Last August, the Live Science news website reported that more than $143 million worth of artifacts had been exported from Egypt to the U.S. since the political chaos of the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolution.

Most of these ended up in New York City, where trading antiquities is big business and shows no signs of abating: In the first five months of this year alone, $26 million worth of Egyptian antiquities have entered the U.S. illegally, most of them for private use or commercial sale.

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