The Moment - Feb 22, 2020

The Met Returns $4 Million Egyptian Sarcophagus After Investigators Discover It Was Looted

  • September 26, 2019 18:26

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Gilded Coffin Lid for the Priest Nedjemankh (detail). Late Ptolemaic Period (150-50 B.C.). Cartonnage, gold, silver, resin, glass, wood.
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Earlier this week, an ancient Egyptian gilded cartonnage coffin from the first century B.C. that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York purchased for about $4 million over a year ago was given back to Egypt. The prized new acquisition was stolen, said investigators. 

“Our office has been investigating this for more than seven years with support from our law enforcement colleagues in Egypt, Germany, and France,” said Cyrus Vance, New York's District Attorney who has focused on repatriating cultural property. Egyptian officials were given the piece in an official ceremony in Manhattan on Tuesday.

The mummiform coffin was inscribed for Nedjemankh, a high-ranking priest of the ram-headed god Heryshef of Herakleopolis. The elaborately decorated surface includes scenes and texts in thick gesso relief that were intended to protect and guide Nedjemankh on his journey from death to eternal life as a transfigured spirit.

Most special, the coffin was sheathed in gold and had silver foil lining inside, with a remarkable long inscription on the front of the lid explicitly connecting gold and "fine gold" (electrum) to the flesh of the gods, the sun, and the rebirth of the deceased.

After the Met purchased the coffin, the museum issued a statement that read, in part, that the piece was "officially exported from Egypt in 1971." And "the coffin has since resided in a private collection." 

The export license and ownership history given to the museum by the seller was fake.

Law enforcement uncovered that the rare golden coffin had actually been underground for thousands of years, then stolen from the Minya region of Egypt in October 2011, and smuggled into Dubai. The piece was sent to Germany for restoration and ended with an unnamed dealer in France, who sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for around $4 million.

In February, the coffin was seized from the Met by the DA's office. The museum has fully cooperated with law enforcement, says the DA's office.

Tags: antiquities

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