Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic Society
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A child's sarcophagus is removed from its crate for display at a repatriation ceremony at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington D.C. It was illegally smuggled into the U.S. and will be returned to Cairo.

Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic Society

U.S., Egypt Sign Agreement to Thwart Trade in Illegal Antiquities

For the first time, the U.S. has entered into a bilateral agreement with a Middle Eastern country to stop the importation of smuggled artifacts.

An ancient mummy hand destined for a Hollywood prop studio was one of five artifacts returned to the Egyptian government in a repatriation ceremony held December 1 in Washington D.C.

Attendees of the ceremony at the Egyptian embassy admired the wizened hand, delicately propped atop a pedestal, as well as a colorful child's sarcophagus, a carved wooden sarcophagus panel, a painted mummy shroud, and a gilded mummy mask—all on display for the last time before their return to their country of origin. All of the artifacts are estimated to be more than 2,500 years old.

While the exact destination of each artifact is uncertain, many may find their way to the Grand Egyptian Museum, a new repository for the country's artifacts currently being built in the shadow of the famous Pyramids at Giza.

"These [artifacts] are more at home in Egypt than they are in someone’s private collection in the United States,” observed Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.

WATCH: The left hand of a mummy was seized by U.S. Customs agents in Los Angeles. It was originally believed to have belonged to a modern kidnapping victim.



With the exception of the mummy hand, all of the artifacts displayed at the repatriation ceremony were seized as part of an extensive, five-year antiquities trafficking operation dubbed "Operation Mummy's Curse."

The investigation, led by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), was featured in the June 2016 National Geographic cover story, "How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History."

The operation began in 2008 when federal authorities were alerted to an artifact offered for sale by New York-based antiquities dealer Mousa Khouli. The artifact 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. Some 7,000 artifacts from countries including Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen were ultimately seized, along with more than $80,000 and a 9mm handgun.

Four men were eventually indicted in the case, with antiquities dealer Khouli sentenced to six months home confinement, up to 200 hours of community service, one year of probation, and a $200 fine. A collector, Joseph Lewis II, had all charges dismissed following a 12-month deferred prosecution agreement with the government.

Several other artifacts from Operation Mummy's Curse were returned to Egypt in April of last year.

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An ancient Egyptian gilded mummy mask (left) rests next to a carved sarcophagus panel. Both were illegally imported into the U.S. and will be returned to the Grand Egyptian Museum, currently under construction.

The mummy hand was relinquished voluntarily by its purchaser after the appendage was seized by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in Los Angeles. It was initially believed to belong to a kidnapping victim, until a medical examiner assured the FBI that the "victim" had been dead for more than 2,000 years.


The repatriation ceremony was held just a day after the signing by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Egypt's Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, of a bilateral cultural property agreement between the respective countries.

Such agreements are intended to restrict the importation of illicit antiques or antiquities into the United States from their country of origin. They outline the types of objects that require legal permits to enter the United States, and also involve law enforcement training to assist in recognizing artifacts and antiques that may be illegally smuggled into the country.

"We want people to know that the United States will no longer be a market for these items," says Evan Ryan, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The country of origin must initiate the request to obtain a bilateral agreement, a process that—as in the case of Egypt—may take several years of negotiations. Since 1983, the U.S. has entered into bilateral cultural property agreements with 16 countries, half of which are located in Central or South America.

This is the first bilateral cultural property agreement between the U.S. and a nation in the Middle East or North Africa. (The U.S. currently has two unilateral emergency import restrictions on antiquities from Iraq and Syria.)

"We're hoping that this [agreement] will be an example to other countries," says Assistant Secretary Ryan. She expressed optimism that other nations in the region will also move forward in requesting bilateral agreements to protect their cultural heritage.

"We want Egypt to understand that we respect their history and their culture, just as much as we hope that people respect ours."