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Published March 10, 2010

Confiscated by U.S. Customs agents in Miami, a brightly painted, 3,000-year-old sarcophagus was handed over to Egypt's antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, on Wednesday.

© 2010 National Geographic; video courtesy I.C.E

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A stolen ancient Egyptian sarcophagus is returning home.

The sarcophagus, nearly 3,000 years-old was seized by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or I.C.E , during a routine shipments inspection at the Miami International Airport in 2008 Agents became suspicious when they noticed inconsistencies in the shipment’s documentation.

Customs investigated the importer and the seller in Spain and concluded the sarcophagus was indeed stolen property.

An Egyptologist verified that the sarcophagus is an authentic Egyptian artifact.

With its elaborate hieroglyphs, the wooden coffin belonged to a prominent man named Imesy who lived during the 21st Dynasty of Egypt.

After the sarcophagus was seized, the United States and the Spanish art gallery that sold the artifact engaged in a legal battle over ownership. Eventually the gallery abandoned its challenge and Egypt’s ownership was ensured

ICE. arranged a repatriation ceremony at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, DC to officially return the sarcophagus to its home country. To prepare for its journey, agents thoroughly wrapped and boxed the delicate delivery for its departure from Miami.

Agents accompanied the sarcophagus to Washington and were greeted by staff from the National Geographic who were on hand to make sure the precious cargo arrived safe and sound. The sarcophagus was carefully unpackaged and further inspected.

At the repatriation ceremony, representatives from the Egyptian and United States governments signed the official custody documents. Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and a National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence, accepted the sarcophagus on Egypt’s behalf.

Once the sarcophagus safely returns home it will be put on display at the Global Egyptian Museum in Cairo in early April in an exhibition showcasing artifacts recovered in the last 8 years.

So far approximately 31,000 Egyptian artifacts have been repatriated yet the number of items that are still illegally distributed and owned is unknown.

The repatriation of the sarcophagus called attention to the ongoing struggle to protect ancient art and antiquities from the black market trade. Egyptian artifacts are often smuggled because there is a high demand for them on the international market, and as a result countries such as Egypt have been robbed of their history and culture.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the largest investigative agency in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and it plays a leading role in combating the trafficking of lost or stolen cultural properties, art and antiquities, and returning them to their countries of origin.

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