A wooden mummiform sarcophagus lid painted with a vibrant green face that was long on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences was repatriated to Egypt on Monday. The sarcophagus is 9.5 feet long and dates to the Late Dynastic Period (664-332 B.C.) of Egypt. It is covered with hieroglyph inscriptions painted in gold. It may have belonged to a priest named Ankhenmaat, but part of the inscription was lost so the name cannot be confirmed.
Most of the artifacts that have been repatriated to Egypt in recent years were trafficked in the aftermath of the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. One salient example is the gilded cartonnage coffin of the Late Ptolemaic priest Nedjemankh, bought in 2017 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from a shady dealer for $4 million and repatriated less than two years later when it was found to have been looted and trafficked with forged export documents.
At the time of the repatriation of Nedjemankh’s coffin, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. told the press that the investigation into its real origins had traced its movements from the initial theft in October 2011 to the United Arab Emirates to Germany (where it was restored) to auction in France where it was sold by dealer Christophe Kunicki to the Met and shipped to New York. This was orchestrated by a sophisticated multi-national organized crime network with active conspirators and shills in the high-end art and antiquities markets. Vance shared this information deliberately — usually the authorities are tight-lipped about on-going investigations — in order to put the museum industry on alert that they were going to have be pay attention to ownership history with a much sharper eye because this criminal organization’s loot was everywhere and more significant artifacts were going to be seized in the months and years to come.
That was both a threat and a promise, to paraphrase a line from every single action movie ever. Three plus years after Vance warned of what was to come, his successor Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg determined that the green sarcophagus was stolen and trafficked by the same criminal network that had targeted the gilded coffin, but the green coffin was looted before the uprising. It was looted from the Abu Sir Necropolis in North Cairo, smuggled into Germany in 2008 and from there into the United States. A private collector acquired it and then loaned the lid to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 2013.