Around US$50 million worth of ancient artifacts were illegally smuggled out of Egypt and shipped to the United States in 2016, with a similar volume of smuggled artifacts leaving Turkey, making 2016 the worst in 20 years for smuggled goods from both countries, according to the US Federal Census Bureau.
The majority of these artifacts were exported via Egypt and Turkey to New York for commercial purposes, rather than for display in museums, the Live Science website reported Tuesday.
10 kilograms of 100-year-old gold coins were smuggled in 2016, as well as ancient Egyptian statues, and even a severed mummy’s hand dating back to the eighth century BC, which was shipped to the US for use in a science fiction movie, according to the US Federal Census Bureau, although it was apprehended by Los Angeles customs officials and sent back to Egypt along with a smuggled sarcophagus.
Despite both US and international conventions on illicit exports, US law enforcement officials are reportedly struggling to determine the authenticity of many smuggled goods, and where and when they were stolen.
A new bilateral agreement was signed in November 2016 by the US and Egypt regarding the smuggling of antiquities in light of mutual concerns over the volume of smuggled goods.
According to the Census Bureau’s report, many of these goods were looted and smuggled in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution amid the security vacuum, while others were stolen during the unrest in 2013.
Egypt is known for its understaffed and poorly managed archaeological sites, and outdated museum inventories, making smuggling artifacts relatively easy.
Many smuggled artifacts are shipped under vague descriptions, such as “collectors’ pieces of archaeological, historical or ethnographic interest,” making them hard to track and value. According to a US customs official cited by Live Science, the value of smuggled goods may well be underestimated and their resale value may actually be much higher than is often stated or declared.
Most of the artifacts shipped from Turkey were stolen and smuggled out of the neighboring war-torn countries of Iraq and Syria, the US Census Bureau claims.
People often hold onto smuggled goods for years in the US before resale, meaning many of the goods recently recovered were stolen between 2007 and 2012, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency spokesperson Brendan Raedy, cited by Live Science, who explained the agency has a representative in Cairo who reports all smuggled artifacts from archaeological sites.
The volume of smuggled Egyptian artifacts has raised some alarm, with pro-government MP Mostafa Bakry calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the matter and the questioning of Egypt’s antiquities minister, the privately owned Youm7 newspaper reported.
Member of the parliamentary committee for culture and antiquities Nader Mostafa told Youm7 that the reason for such large volumes of looting from Egypt’s archaeological sites is that most employees entrusted with their protection are paid very little, and that the ministry itself has a relatively small budget.
Antiquities Ministry officials say the numbers of looted artifacts cited in the US Census Bureau’s report are likely overstated, and that there was a decrease in smuggling in 2016 in Egypt in comparison to 2011.