Some 2,600 years ago, an Egyptian woman named Shesepamuntayesher was mummified and laid to rest in an elaborate three-part coffin to ensure the continuation of her life force and the beginning of an eternal afterlife. (Learn more about ancient Egyptians’ belief in an afterlife.)
Shesepamuntayesher’s afterlife has unfortunately included a trip to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and an ignominious stop in a garage in Brooklyn, New York. On Wednesday, thanks to a five-year investigation by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the empty sarcophagus that once cradled her mummy is being returned to Egypt, where it will be housed in the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (Find out what we can learn from mummies.)
The investigation is the first in the U.S. to identify a complex network of artifact smugglers, importers, dealers, and collectors and resulted in the seizure of some 7,000 illegally imported cultural artifacts from seven countries, including Iraq, Yemen, and Italy. While significant, these artifacts reflect only a tiny percentage of the stolen cultural heritage—particularly from conflict zones—that is appearing on the global market. (Learn about new tools to combat looting.)
The majority of cases of artifact trafficking investigated by ICE/HSI involve objects from the Middle East, where wars and general unrest have fueled the chaos that enables looters and smugglers to plunder an increasing number of documented and undocumented archaeological sites.
At a repatriation ceremony at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., Shesepamuntayesher’s brightly painted nesting coffins, decorated with gods and goddesses and spells from the Book of the Dead, shared the stage with Egyptian ambassador to the U.S., Mohamed Tawfik; Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security and ICE Director Sarah Saldaña; National Geographic President Gary Knell; and a host of other officials and special agents responsible for the return of more than a hundred artifacts that are believed to have been illegally smuggled out of Egypt.
Other objects repatriated at the ceremony include a Greco-Roman sarcophagus from the time of Cleopatra; dozens of shabti figures, representing people who will assist the dead in the afterlife; and three 4,000-year-old wooden boat models, which were originally placed in tombs to provide the dead with a magical means of traveling through the underworld.
Referring to the damage that looters and smugglers have done to Egyptian cultural heritage, Ambassador Tawfik thanked the people involved in the five-year investigation that resulted in the repatriation, saying that their “tireless work, while often unseen, is nothing short of vital for the preservation of ancient cultures around the world.”
A Multiyear Investigation, From Brooklyn to Dubai
The investigation, dubbed Operation Mummy’s Curse, began in 2008 when federal authorities were alerted to an artifact offered for sale by New York-based antiquities dealer Mousa Khouli, which appeared identical to an object in the hands of a man in a photograph accompanying a 2003 article on the looting of the ancient site of Isin in Iraq.
The subsequent investigation revealed a complex network of dealers, collectors, and middlemen across the Middle East and led to the indictment of Khouli on multiple counts of smuggling and money laundering. Also indicted were Ayman Ramadan, whose company in Dubai sold items to Khouli, and Salem Alshdaifat, another U.S.-based dealer who allegedly facilitated purchases and had connections to Hassan Fazeli, an overseas source responsible for smuggling an Assyrian statue head from Khorsabad that was repatriated to Iraq last month. A Virginia-based collector, Joseph Lewis II, was also named in the indictment.
One of Shesepamuntayesher’s coffins was located by ICE Special Agent Brenton Easter in the garage of Khouli’s home in Brooklyn, while the other two were seized at U.S. ports of entry. One of the coffins had been cut in three pieces to facilitate shipment by express mail. Traces of the linen that once wrapped her mummified body were found in the innermost coffin.
Khouli originally faced up to 20 years on the charges against him and ultimately pleaded guilty in 2012 to smuggling Egyptian artifacts into the U.S. and making a false statement to government authorities. The government asked for a jail sentence of between four and five years. Khouli’s lawyer countered that in other cases where people were found guilty of smuggling cultural property, the most common sentence received was probation.
Despite the prosecution’s argument that non-jail felony convictions for such cases had become “the cost of doing business,” Khouli was sentenced to six months home confinement, up to 200 hours of community service, and one year of probation and received a $200 fine. The collector, Joseph Lewis II, had all charges dismissed following a 12-month deferred prosecution agreement with the government. Ayman Ramadan, the source in Dubai, remains an international fugitive, while Salem Alshdaifat eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was fined $1,000.
Following their convictions, Alshdaifat and Khouli continue to sell antiquities. Meanwhile, Shesepamuntayesher’s wild ride in the afterlife ends tomorrow when her coffins head home on an EgyptAir flight from New York to Cairo.
Follow Kristin Romey on Twitter.