U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned over 65 illegally smuggled ancient artifacts to Egypt in a ceremony Wednesday.
The ancient treasures include a woman’s painted sarcophagus that predates Jesus and was discovered in a Brooklyn garage in 2009.
The coffin’s discovery sparked the five-year investigation of an international smuggling ring– an operation that ICE called “Operation Mummy’s Curse.” Other artifacts included coins, carved tablets from a temple, and a model funeral boat that dates back to the Middle Kingdom period— making it at least 3,600 years old.
According to ICE, Operation Mummy’s Curse has seized $3 million worth of antiquities to date, as well as making two convictions and continuing to track a fugitive involved in treasure smuggling. Some of the items were seized in airports across the U.S., while the investigation of the smuggling ring tracked others as far as the U.K. and United Arab Emirates.
“To think that some of these treasured artifacts were recovered from garages, exposed to the elements, is unimaginable,” said ICE Director Sarah Saldaña in a statement. (RELATED: Punk Rocker Rescues Ancient Christian Music)
As they testify to one of the most long-lived and culturally rich civilizations in history, antiquities from Egypt are highly prized on the black market. The network uncovered by ICE’s efforts included legitimate art restorers and purchasers, as well as suspicious importers and money launderers.
Besides its work to return valuable stolen objects to Egypt, ICE noted that recent years have included the repatriation of paintings to France, manuscripts to Peru and artifacts to China, Cambodia and Iraq.
While many of Egypt’s most valued national treasures are held by the government, those objects became more difficult to secure starting with the 2011 Egyptian revolution. During the chaos of the uprising, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo fell victim to looting and theft. Around 50 items disappeared, and others were damaged.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, antiquities have come under fire from the Islamic State terror group, which sees statues of any kind as a temptation to idol worship. In a highly publicized video earlier this year, the group’s militants in Iraq were seen smashing ancient Mesopotamian statues with sledgehammers. While some of the items in the video later turned out to be plaster casts that were destroyed for pure shock value, others proved to be genuine.
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