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Lid of the coffin of the priest of Heryshef, Nedjemankh, 150–50 BCE, Egypt, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In the first century BCE in Ptolemaic Egypt, the high priest Nedjemankh of the ram-headed god Heryshef prepared for his journey into the afterlife by creating a splendid coffin. No expense was spared; the coffin was externally gilded, while the interior was covered in silver foil. Precious metals were the symbols of divinity. Gold reflected eternity, the skin of the gods, and the sun. The unique silver interior nodded to the moon, and the god Nedjemankh served. The body of the coffin was detailed with intricate hieroglyphs describing who Nedjemankh was and the connection between the precious metals and the eternal life he hoped to achieve after death. Over two thousand years later, Nedjemankh lives on through his coffin as the key to an international crime mystery.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City acquired the coffin in September of 2017 for 3.5 million euros from a private collection that bought the coffin from the Paris auction house Pierre Bergé & Associés with their expert Christophe Kunicki in 2013. According to the seller and the subsequent owner (the Met), the coffin was exported from Egypt in 1971 and remained in a private collection up until the sale. The coffin was the centerpiece of the Met’s new exhibit titled “Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin,” scheduled to run from July 2018 to February 2019. Within two years of the acquisition’s announcement, the coffin had been seized, repatriated to Egypt, and helped investigators unravel an international antiquities trafficking ring.
In February of 2019, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the New York Art Trafficking Unit (ATU), executed a search warrant and confiscated the coffin from the Met in a joint operation with Homeland Security Officials. The authorities claimed that the provenance (the history of ownership of a piece) of the coffin was forged and fraudulent; instead of belonging to a private collection since the ‘70s, the coffin had been looted and smuggled out of Egypt during the turbulent 2011 Revolution. The Met claimed to be a victim of fraud and cooperated with the investigation. Following the confiscation and investigation, in September 2019, the District Attorneys and Egyptian officials took part in a repatriation ceremony in New York, and the coffin returned to Cairo in October.
While the coffin was settled, the investigation into the larger scheme was still ongoing. The Manhattan DA’s Office had been investigating the specific group of dealers and auction houses connected to the antiquities trafficking ring since 2013. The sarcophagus was the figurative nail in the coffin for the traffickers, putting into motion an extensive series of arrests and confiscations.
Bogdanos outlined the ring’s system to traffick the coffin and other antiquities. First, looters and thieves in the Middle East would find and photograph objects and email them to the collector, Simonian, and the manager of his Hamburg gallery, Dib. Dib would then consult with the Paris-based dealer Kunicki, and the two would decide what to purchase. Once agreed upon, the objects were looted and smuggled out of Egypt, using the context and confusion of political unrest as a cover. The objects were then moved through Dubai, U.A.E, to Hamburg, Germany, for restoration and cleaning before moving on to Paris, France, for sale. Finally, pieces were sold to museums, such as the Met, the Louvre, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and private collections and galleries.
Map detailing the trafficking ring’s movement of objects according to Assistant DA Bogdanos. Map Outline: Vector Map of the World with Countries - Outline
So far, trafficked pieces have been located in the United States, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates. This list is not exhaustive, as the litigation and investigation into the group remains ongoing. In addition, civil suits and criminal complaints have been filed concerning antiques sold through the network with the same questionable provenance.
The situation spurred a series of arrests. Kunicki was arrested in Paris in 2020 for gang fraud and money laundering and was placed under house arrest. Dib was first arrested in Hamburg in 2020, then voluntarily traveled to Paris and was arrested in 2022 for allegedly selling more than 50 million euros worth of looted and trafficked antiquities to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. In 2020, five experts, including the former Director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, were arrested and questioned by the French authorities. Martinez was charged with “complicity of fraud and laundering” of antiquities and may be held liable for having reason to question the authenticity of the provenances of the objects he authorized for purchase as the co-chair of the acquisitions for the Louvre Abu Dhabi project. Both the Louvre and the Louvre Abu Dhabi have joined as civil parties in the criminal investigation. They claim to want access to the investigation files, which may impact their future acquisition processes.
Back in the United States in 2022, a longtime Antiquities Trafficking Unit informant was charged with trafficking looted antiquities, and a warrant for his arrest was issued. Lebanese antiquities dealer George Lofti claims he was the person who tipped off the District Attorney's Office to the false provenance of the coffin. In documents provided by Lofti, he connected the original smuggler of the coffin, Abu Said, to Assistant DA Bogdanos. However, in a spirited eight-page document in English and French, Lofti rejects the charges and claims that he was simply born with “la collectionnite aigue” (acute collectionitus).
The removal of the coffin follows a broader scheme that attempts to stop looting and trafficking through forfeiture actions. If an object was stolen and brought to the United States, it is subject to civil forfeiture under 19 U.S.C. § 1595a(c) as “merchandise introduced contrary to law” or under 18 USC § 981(a)(1)(B) as property received through an "offense against a foreign nation." Questions surrounding the legal issues of seizure and repatriation are prominent today due to forfeiture actions being brought against significant private actors in the art market. In U.S. v. A 10th Century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture, the government seized a Cambodian statue located at Sotheby’s in New York. United States v. A 10th Century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture, No. 12 CIV. 2600 GBD, 2013 WL 1290515 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 28, 2013). The statue, along with 30 other looted antiquities, were returned to Cambodia this year. In Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Christie's Inc, a looted cuneiform tablet from Iraq was seized from Hobby Lobby and repatriated, leading to a suit against Christie’s for alleged fraud and contract breach. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Christie's Inc., 535 F. Supp. 3d 113 (E.D.N.Y. 2021). Critics claim that the government uses civil forfeiture actions to seize antiques without meeting the higher standards required for criminal convictions. While private actors might find civil forfeiture actions aggressive, it is a powerful tool against looted antiquities trafficking. It will be up to Congress if it wishes to manage the approach applied by executive branch officials through legislation.
Partially due to forfeiture, some dealers worry that an overactive policing of the antiquities market could lead to a slowdown in the trade from fear of prosecution. However, this seems not to be the case. In the art market, the demand for antiquities is increasing, mirroring the sharp growth of the international art market, with an almost 30% increase in sales in 2022. It is too early to tell if this growth will be matched with a greater incentive to traffic since the rewards for looted goods will be great, or if the threat of international prosecution will become a stronger deterrent.
The outcome of this particular trafficking ring is uncertain as it rests on pending civil and criminal litigation. But, regardless of how the cases unfold, the coffin is back in Egypt after an unexpected global trip. Nedjemankh’s name lives on, which was the goal of the coffin, even if it was because of a situation he could have never imagined.