The United States is returning a beautifully painted 21st Dynasty wooden sarcophagus to Egypt. Customs officials confiscated the coffin from a Spanish national at Miami International Airport in 2008 when they found it had no documentation of ownership.
They contacted the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities in October 2008 to let them know that they had the piece in custody. Since it had been shipped from Spain with the likely intent of selling it in the US without documentation, they figured (correctly) that it had been smuggled out of Egypt illegally at some point.
Egypt immediately provided documentation of their ownership of the coffin, but the Spanish dealer shamelessly refused to relinquish it until Zahi Hawass filed a suit against him in a US court.
The coffin of Imesy, a beautifully ornate piece with colorful religious scenes painted on it, had been a piece the council had been demanding be returned.
Zahi Hawass, the SCA Secretary-General said last year that the coffin likely belongs to pharaoh Ames from the 21st Dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 1070-945 BC.
A US investigation found that it was likely smuggled out of Egypt after 1970 (the dividing line established by the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property), kept underground for a few decades, only to surface in an exhibit in Madrid in 2007. The dealer who shipped it to Miami apparently has family ties with the owner of the Egyptian museum in Barcelona.
According to Hawass’ statement, the sarcophagus was first smuggled out of Egypt in 1884. It’s always challenging to pinpoint the movement of looted artifacts. That’s one of the many reasons looting sucks. David Gill at Looting Matters looks at the smuggling trajectory of the coffin, especially the Spanish connection.
The sarcophagus is scheduled to be returned officially in a gala ceremony on March 10th in Washington, D.C. Zahi Hawass, of course, will be there with bells on.