|Shaaban Abdel-Gawad - Head of the Egyptian Department of Repatriation|
Image Credit: Egyptian Department of Repatriation,
Ministry of Antiquities-Arab Republic of Egypt
Last winter, with sufficient tangible evidence that the delicate cartonnage coffin had been smuggled out of Egypt recently, HSI New York and the D.A.’s Office sought, obtained, and executed a search warrant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where they seized the antiquity pending the outcome of their completed investigation. The New York warrant was issued on the basis that under the State's criminal law, barring the expiration of the statute of limitations, or application of the laches doctrine, the Metropolitan Museum of Art could not have obtained clear title unless the present-day possessor's title could be traced to someone with whom the original owner, in this case Egypt, had voluntarily entrusted the art.
The seizure was executed at The Met on February 15, 2019, and concluded one chapter in a lengthy and ongoing investigation, conducted jointly with law enforcement and heritage partners in the United States, Egypt, Germany, and France. On the US side, the investigation was coordinated via the New York District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., and overseen by New York Assistant D.A. Matthew Bogdanos, Senior Trial Counsel and Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit. Working on the case for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (HSI) were Special Agents Brent Easter and Robert Mancene. The Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt for its part, provided evidence in the case and petitioned for the antiquity's return.
cutting short its successful exhibition of the Egyptian mummiform coffin and relinquishing their centerpiece artefact to the authorities for restitution. Daniel Weiss, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, apologised to Egypt and indicated the museum had been the victim of fraud and an unwitting participant in the illegal trade of antiquities.
At the hand-over ceremony, New York District Attorney Cyrus Roberts Vance Jr., issued a statement indicating that the gilded antiquity is "just one of hundreds of antiquities stolen by the same multi-national trafficking ring." As of now, prosecutors have not announced charges against any of the actors they have identified in the smuggling case and the investigation is still ongoing.
Yet the story of this grand jury investigation into antiquities traffickers began long before the prestigious golden coffin found its way into the Egyptian Collection at the largest art museum in the United States.
Information now cleared for disclosure through officials at New York's DA's office demonstrates that their office's Antiquities Trafficking U\nit began conducting an exhaustive international investigation into an illicit trafficking ring as early as 2013, following up on leads tied to individuals known to be working in the Middle East and Europe. The focus of the investigation in New York centered on the movement of stolen and looted artifacts which transited into or through its jurisdiction, i.e., specifically New York County.
Material seized or relinquished voluntarily to the authorities during the course of this operation came from a variety of known and undisclosed sources. As a result of this evidence and investigation the New York DA's office has been able to successfully illustrate critical connections to, and between several suspects who, it is alleged, willingly facilitated the smuggling of antiquities, from Middle Eastern source countries for a share of the illegal profits. It should be noted that while antiquities are looted from archaeological sites across the world, incidences of theft in areas of armed conflict are frequently more prevalent due to the lack of security, as was the case with this antiquity in Egypt.
Evidence related to this investigation included digital records of email correspondence which served to establish connections between suspected looters trading freely with middlemen smugglers and corrupt art dealers transacting in illicit material. As part of the cache of evidence the DA's office also obtained financial transaction records and export documents along with photographs and videos, some of which show dirty and damaged antiquities, shortly after their immediate discovery.
Some of these photographs depict antiquities scattered on the ground. Other showed objects wrapped in newspapers, or lying on the floor in dimly lit rooms or hiding places. Six of these images, attached to emails exchanged between suspects involved in the smuggling conspiracy, would prove integral to the coffin's restitution and were already evidence in the case long before the mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh arrived at the Met.
These photos were exchanged directly or indirectly between an initial looting suspect, a suspect in Germany and the Paris dealer the gilded coffin was shopped to. Four of the images showed the priceless object in a newly looted state, still dirt-encrusted and laid out on top of a blanket.
Why do looters take incriminating photographs of freshly looted antiquities?
In the underbelly of the illicit art market, authenticity brings a higher premium than legitimacy. Antiquities dating back a thousand years, broken into pieces, or still encrusted in soil, demonstrating the tell-tale signs of having been freshly unearthed, can be golden to a looter and enticing to the would-be unscrupulous buyer. Antiquities depicted in such a sullied state demonstrate graphically that the object being flogged won't (usually) have an incriminating photo elsewhere, tucked away in some national ministry or museum archive.
Nor will a photo of a freshly looted antiquity raise any eyebrows during the standard sale vetting procedures which require stolen property checks with art loss databases which will have no record of the previously unknown object. This allows those who trade in illicit antiquities to fabricate a back story that an object has been tucked away for decades in a private collection, effectively whitening the object's collection history so that it can more easily be sold on the ancient art market, at least in countries with less restrictive laws regarding the timeline of the and the rights of the unknowing good faith purchaser.
Most importantly photographic imagery of looted objects serves as visual proof to the buyer that what the seller is trying to peddle is likely to be (but not always) authentic. And in the age of data plans and cell phones, looters are now known to snap videos of objects, even while they still rest in situ. Passing recordings between one another, videos such as the one ARCA has archived below, serve as a record of the early stages of a looter's discovery. Images such as these can demonstrate an antiquity's authenticity and first steps of passage, even before it is extracted from a find site.
Start dirty but end clean (at least in appearance)...
In reconstructing the events surrounding the illegal exportation of the Egyptian mummiform coffin, researchers first had to try and trace a likely find spot for the object. The elaborately decorated surface of the mummiform coffin depicts scenes and inscriptions, painted in thick gesso relief, to guide Nedjemankh on his journey from death to eternal life as a transfigured spirit. Nedjemankh, was a high-ranking priest of an ancient ram-god Heryshaf, or Hershef, (Egyptian Ḥry-š=f) whose ancient cult was centered in Herakleopolis Magna, now Ihnasiyyah al-Madinah. This location sits on the west bank of the Nile near Beni Suef, approximately 115 km south of Cairo and 120 km north of the Minya region.
In accordance with Egyptian funerary tradition of the period, the gold coffin and its now lost mummified occupant would have likely been placed in a sealed tomb, either within a burial niche or an outer sarcophagus. Burial places for the elite that served Herakleopolis Magna during the period from the Old to Middle Kingdoms tended to be large rock-cut tombs created in the distant east bank sites of Sheikh Said and Deir el-Bersha, in the Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt.
Both of these areas have been subject to antiquities plunder, sometimes even by violent means. As late as 2016 two guards, A'srāwy Kāmel Jād and Ali Khalaf Shāker, patrolling the tombs of Deir el-Bersha were killed when unknown assailants opened fire at them while at the site to loot archaeological material. But in the case of the mummiform coffin, the looting seems to have taken place earlier, likely during the Arab Spring of 2011, in the midst of Egypt's political upheaval and the revolutionary period which toppled former president Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak.
Analysis of digital evidence: an increasingly important tool for solving crimes and preparing court cases
Looking to solidify the object's illicit origins and the time frame for its theft, investigators worked to reconstruct the initial passage of the object's timeline with evidence obtained from the suspects' correspondence. Using the six photographs taken of the mummiform coffin and later shared between the suspected tomb pillagers, middlemen and dealers, forensic analysis of the image files allowed the DA's office to establish a timetable for when each of the photos were taken, purportedly by the freelance grave robbers or their associates. That research concluded that each of the six photographs were snapped in either October or November 2011. That same photo analysis geolocated where the photographs were taken, inside Egypt.
This evidence serves to contradict the manufactured export documentation produced by the coffin's launderers. Works of fiction in their own right, and with striking inaccuracies and contradictions that should have been identified during the museum's due diligence process, the white-washed export documents fraudulently claimed that the sarcophagus once belonged to the Cairo merchant Habib Tawadros who purportedly sold the gilded coffin to a "Mme. Chatz" in Switzerland.
After passing from Egypt the investigation revealed that the coffin spent some time under the control of a known middleman operating in the United Arab Emirates, where the coffin was shipped after leaving Egypt and spent some time before moving on to Germany. The coffin was then shipped from the UAE to Germany where it underwent restoration before ultimately passing on to Paris where it was viewed in person on December 2016 for consideration by Diana Craig Patch, the Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge of the Department of Egyptian Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
|Image Credit: Ministry of Antiquities-Arab Republic of Egypt|
The UAE-based suspect alleged to have been involved in this transaction was already well known to illicit trafficking researchers, as the gilded coffin was not the first plundered antiquity with fraudulent documentation the middleman dealer has been connected with. In 2008 the Iranian trader, based in Sharjah, exported a limestone head of the Assyrian king Sargon II, declaring that the object was originally from Turkey. In 2010, US Customs inspected a package transiting through Newark International Airport which the dealer had shipped sent via FedEx. That package contained five ancient Egyptian objects dating from 343 B.C., or the Late Period, to 2081 B.C., during the Middle Kingdom on route to Holyland Numismatics in the US. Again, in this case, the dealer had listed the country of manufacture as Turkey. In 2011, he also exported a statue thought to represent either the goddess Demeter or her daughter Persephone, of the type only produced in Cyrenaica, ancient Libya. As with each of the previous cases, each time the dealer fraudulently issued misdeclarations, he listed the country of origin as Turkey, for objects originating from war torn countries in the Middle East though it remains unclear as to why he chose to do.
This Sharjah suspect in turn shipped the coffin on to two suspects in Germany who facilitated details of the transaction with Paris-based art dealer Christophe Kunicki, and his partner Richard Semper while the object underwent cleaning and restoration.
Thoughts on the museum's level of due diligence
In examining the provenance of the coffin, it is discouraging to note that the export documentation alone, should have given everyone who handled the object and its subsequent purchase pause, that is if they were acting in good faith and are innocent of any level of collusion. At no point did anyone, the Sharjah dealer, the Germany-based conservator and intermediaries, Christophe Kunicki, Richard Semper, Curator Diana Patch or anyone else in the administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art seriously question why the variously supplied export certificates, and their French and German translations, listed the issuing authority as "the Arab Republic of Egypt" and not as the "United Arab Republic".
All license applications, shipper's export declarations or export permissions would have referred to the country during this time period as the United Arab Republic (the U.A.R.) and would likely also have specified the regional territory it referred to, ergo, the United Arab Republic - the Southern (Egypt) region or the Northern (Syria) Region, whichever would have been applicable to the article being shipped. Furthermore Egypt retained the name "United Arab Republic" even after Syria's departure from the union, using it as its official name through 1971.
While I don't fault the museum's staff for their innate lack of knowledge of geography and Middle Eastern political alliances, I do fault them for not having even tried to inform themselves given the enormous price tag of this purchase, let alone the possibility that they might (again) be facilitating looting by accepting fabricated documents so readily. A simple, proactive cross check of history books, at any point during their due diligence process, would have alerted any of the non-colluding parties that something might be afoul with the coffin's exportation documents. That one single cross-check could have prompted appropriate law enforcement authorities to act more quickly, and would have saved the Met considerable embarrassment, as well as acquisition cash.
Likewise, as a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), one of the museum world’s most influential professional organizations, the Met is required to abide by AAMD acquisition guidelines. These guidelines set standards by which member museums should go about conducting due diligence when acquiring archaeological material and ancient art.
Section III A of these guidelines specifically state:
A. Member museums should thoroughly research the ownership history of a Work prior to its acquisition, including making a rigorous effort to obtain accurate written documentation with respect to its history, including import and export documents.
|Left: Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. Center: Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Hassan Shoukry. Right: U.S. Homeland Security Investigations special-agent-in-charge Peter Fitzhugh. Image Credit NYDA's Office|
A statement from the ICOM International Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods states:
“It is important that museums, libraries, archives and art dealers continue to be able to develop their collections. Nevertheless, they should ensure that their collections are built up in accordance with universally recognised moral principles. They must take precautions to ensure that they acquire or borrow only ethically acceptable items and reject items that might have been looted or illegally exported.”
Failure to have engaged in serious due diligence of this artifact caused the Metropolitan Museum of Art to suffer by their own hands. Likewise, the eye-popping prices the museum continues to pay for suspect artifacts exacerbates the difficulties already faced by customs and law enforcement agencies in deterring the illegal trade of ancient art.
Going forward, it might be worthwhile for the Met to consider enforcing a standard which requires its staff to sign off on a document testifying that they have strongly adhered to the AAMD guidelines and ICOM's suggestions before signing any million dollar checks for acquisitions. Failing to carry out their required duties, the museum would then have sufficient recourse for termination.
This lack of sympathy was echoed by Peter C. Fitzhugh, Special Agent in Charge of HSI New York during the coffin's restitution ceremony, who said:
“The high profit business of smuggling and trafficking antiquities has been around for centuries....but it is the responsibility of a buyer to confirm the proper provenance of a piece of art or antiquity."
In conclusion, prosecutors have not (yet) announced charges against any antiquities traffickers. After seven years of investigation the coffin is at last on public display at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC) in the suburbs of Cairo until it shifts to the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), which is expected to open in 2020. When it does, the GEM will be the largest museum dedicated to a single civilisation. I can't think of a better place for Egyptians to learn about Nedjemankh, his life in ancient Egypt.
By: Lynda Albertson