U.S. sends stolen ancient gold coffin back to Egypt

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art — commonly known as the Met — has returned a prized item from its collection of Egyptian antiquities after learning that the piece was actually a stolen artifact.

The looted item, a gilded coffin that once held the remains of a high-ranking priest named Nedjemankh, is estimated to be about 2,100 years old. It has now been returned to Egypt, following a recent repatriation ceremony in New York with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry and U.S. authorities.

“New Yorkers place a strong value on cultural heritage, and our office takes pride in our work to vigorously protect it,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said in a statement. “Returning stolen cultural treasures to their countries of origin is at the core of our mission to stop the trafficking of stolen antiquities.”

Peter C. Fitzhugh, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New York, cited “tremendous collaboration” between his office, the Manhattan District Attorney and global partnerships in recovering the stolen coffin and returning it to the people of Egypt. The U.S. worked with law enforcement partners in Egypt, Germany and France.

Crowd gathering to see golden coffin of mummy in museum (© Mahmoud Bakkar/picture alliance/Getty Images)
Reporters gather around the gilded coffin of Nedjemankh, a high-ranking priest of the ram-god Heryshef in the first century B.C.E., now on view at Cairo’s National Museum of Egyptian Civilization after being repatriated to Egypt by U.S. authorities. (© Mahmoud Bakkar/picture alliance/Getty Images)

The coffin — crafted in Egypt between 150 and 50 B.C.E. — was stolen from Egypt’s Minya region in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution in October 2011 and smuggled out of the country, U.S. authorities said.

New York prosecutors said a dealer gave unsuspecting Met officials a set of forged documents to make the sale appear legitimate. Once presented with evidence of the theft, the Met fully cooperated with the district attorney’s office. The coffin, valued at $4 million, is now on public display in Egypt.

U.S. and Egyptian officials signed an agreement in 2016 — known as a memorandum of understanding, or MOU — signaling close cooperation between Egypt and the United States on the seizure and repatriation of Egypt’s illegally exported cultural property. The U.S. currently has similar agreements with 20 other countries as well.