WASHINGTON–U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) repatriated five illegally smuggled ancient artifacts to the government of Egypt, including a mummy hand from the 8th century BCE, at a ceremony December 1 at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington.
The return of these ancient artifacts was made possible by “Operation Mummy’s Curse,” an ongoing multi-year investigation by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) targeting an international criminal network that illegally smuggled cultural items from around the world and “Operation Mummy’s Hand,” an HSI operation that seized a genuine artifact misrepresented as a science fiction movie prop.
“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,” said ICE Director Sarah Saldaña.
On Sept. 8, 2009, HSI New York recovered a 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 Newark seized a shipment of smuggled Egyptian goods, including a funerary boat model and figurines. A related December 2010 shipment interception at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport contained ancient coins from different countries, 65 of which were repatriated to Egypt last year. Other antiquities returned include two Middle Kingdom wooden boat models and a series of finely carved limestone reliefs from an Egyptian temple.
“For the recovery and repatriation of these priceless artifacts, I would like to offer deepest thanks to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Director Saldaña and – in particular – the agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 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,” said Ambassador Yasser Reda.
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, France, and other nations.
To date, Operation Mummy’s Curse has secured four indictments, two convictions, 19 search warrants, and 16 seizures totaling approximately $3 million. The agency is also seeking an international fugitive involved in the case.
“Each of the artifacts returned today tells a story – a human story, our story. 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,” said Foreign Minister Shoukry.
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 two Baatar dinosaur fossils to Mongolia, antiquities and Saddam Hussein-era objects returned to Iraq, and most recently a 14th century Italian manuscript.