Mummy’s Curse Proves to be No Match for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement08 Dec 2016
In January 2013, a withered mummy hand arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. It looked as though it would fit right in on the set of a horror movie, and its importer tried to pass it off as a movie prop worth only $66. But officials of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a federal law enforcement agency under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), quickly ascertained that the hand was no prop. It was from an authentic Egyptian mummy and estimated to be more than 3,000 years old. This week, the hand and by four other ancient artifacts were returned to their native Egypt following a lengthy investigation and seizure by ICE.
While ICE is primarily known as the chief immigration enforcement arm of the DHS, it also has numerous other responsibilities, including the recapture and repatriation of illegally smuggled cultural artifacts and artwork. Case-in-point, in 2008, an investigation known as Operation Mummy’s Curse was launched after federal agents were tipped off to an Iranian artifact for sale that had been looted from an ancient ritualistic site. ICE investigators eventually uncovered an organization of illegal antiquities dealers, and more than 7,000 artifacts from Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen were recovered. To date, four people have been indicted for smuggling the artifacts out of their native countries for profit, although one international fugitive still remains at large.
The mummy hand and four other Egyptian artifacts, including a child’s sarcophagus, a carved wooden panel, a painted shroud, and a gold plated mummy mask, were officially returned to Egyptian officials this week in a repatriation ceremony in Washington D.C. With the exception of the mummy hand, which was voluntarily surrendered by its importer when it first entered the country at Los Angeles International Airport, the artifacts were among the thousands of items seized as a result of the Operation Mummy’s Curse investigation. The ceremony was particularly meaningful because it occurred just a day after Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry signed a bilateral cultural property agreement – the first ever between the United States and a Middle Eastern country. [See U.S., Egypt Sign Agreement to Thwart Trade in Illegal Antiquities, by Kristin Romey, National Geographic, 02.Dec.16.]
Archeological experts have been overwhelmingly supportive of the repatriation of stolen artifacts to their native countries. “These artifacts are more at home in Egypt than they are in someone’s private collection in the United States,” noted Fredrik Hiebert, archeologist in residence at the National Geographic Society, to National Geographic magazine. And Egyptian ambassador Yesser Reda, who was present at the repatriation ceremony in Washington D.C. this week, extended gratitude towards the ICE officials who made the recovery of the stolen artifacts possible, saying, “… for the recovery and repatriation of these priceless artifacts, I would like to offer deepest thanks to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security … and, in particular, the agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The tireless work of these men and women … is nothing short of vital for the preservation of ancient cultures from around the world.” [See ICE Returns Ancient Artifacts to Egypt, by staff writer, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 01.Dec.2016.]
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