Stolen Egyptian treasures are homeward bound

Egyptian burial sarcophagus (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Child’s wooden sarcophagus, gessoed and polychrome-painted (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

With its rich cultural history stretching back to the time of the pharaohs, Egypt has long been an inviting target for looters. But thanks to a groundbreaking agreement, some stolen antiquities are being returned.

On December 1, a collection of stolen treasures — priceless artifacts that had been plundered from royal tombs to be sold on the black market — began the journey home. The treasures were handed over to Egyptian officials at a Washington ceremony a day after the signing of a U.S.-Egypt cultural property agreement at the U.S. State Department.

Two people handling artifact in box (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Polychrome-painted linen mummy shroud (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Known as a memorandum of understanding (MOU), the agreement is the first such between the U.S. and an Arab nation, signaling close U.S.-Egyptian cooperation on the seizure and repatriation of Egypt’s illegally exported cultural property.

Box containing painted Egyptian mask (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
Gilded mummy mask made from layers of linen or papyrus covered with plaster (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

The U.S. now has MOUs with 16 countries to restrict the import of their stolen cultural property into the United States, and officials hope that similar agreements with other Arab nations will follow.

A child’s wooden sarcophagus, a carved wooden sarcophagus panel, a painted linen mummy shroud, a gilded mummy mask and a mummy hand, all dating from the 8th century B.C.E., are being returned to Egypt.

The artifacts were recovered thanks to two investigations: Operation Mummy’s Curse, carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in New York, and Operation Mummy’s Hand, conducted by the group’s agents in Los Angeles.

Under U.S. customs law, the agents have authority to seize stolen cultural property that has been illegally brought into the United States. During 2016, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has returned hundreds of objects to their countries of origin.

Painted and carved sarcophagus (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
A wooden panel for a woman’s sarcophagus (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Yasser Reda, Egypt’s ambassador to the U.S., issued a statement praising the agents who recovered his country’s treasures. “The tireless work of these men and women may often go unseen,” Reda said. “But it is nothing short of vital for the preservation of ancient cultures from around the world.”