CAIRO: Egyptian and American authorities have announced that the golden coffin of Egyptian priest Nedjemankh, which was stolen during the 2011 revolution, was this week returned to Egypt after it was fraudulently sold to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The large decorated coffin dates back to the first century BC. It was excavated from Minya governorate in Upper Egypt, stolen by antique gangs eight years ago and then smuggled out of the country.
According to the Daily Mail, the Met purchased the coffin from a Paris art dealer in July 2017 for about $4 million. It came with bogus documentation, including a forged 1971 Egyptian export license.
The museum believed that the art dealer, Christophe Kunicki, was acting in good faith and had a legal right to sell the coffin.
As a result, the museum was deceived into believing that it could legitimately purchase the golden coffin.
The object was placed on public display and soon became a major hit with visitors. It was not long before 500,000 people had been to see the coffin, which is in the shape of a mummy, is 2 meters long and is skillfully made from wood and metal, with a covering of sheets of gold.
Ahmed Fathy, a restoration official at Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, said that the Met was approached by the district attorney’s office in New York in February this year.
It came forward with evidence indicating that the prized artifact was stolen as part of an international smuggling operation. After reviewing the evidence, the museum’s officials agreed to return the golden coffin to its rightful owners, the Egyptian people, and removed the item from public display.
Fathy said that the coffin was identified as stolen thanks to the efforts of the Antiquities Anti-Smuggling Unit, which is affiliated with the office of the district attorney in New York, and with the cooperation of officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Antiquities.
The unit had previously succeeded in retrieving stolen Roman, Greek, Indian and Buddhist monuments and returned them to their countries of origin. He added that Egypt has become more determined to recover its monuments that have been stolen or illegally sold.
A press conference was held last week announcing the imminent repatriation of the coffin.
It was attended by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, the New York district attorney and senior officials.
Shoukry stated that the coffin “is not only for Egyptians but this is for our common human heritage.”
Investigations into the theft and illegal sale of the historic item are ongoing.
The authorities have not indicated if they have identified any suspects. The Met is reportedly deeply angered by the incident and is reviewing how it acquires new items. The museum has also vowed to retrieve the money that it gave to the French art dealer for the stolen item.
An official at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Arab News that the coffin will be displayed in the new Grand Egyptian Museum, which is due to open next year.
History researcher Abdel-Meguid Abdel-Aziz said that Nedjemankh’s coffin dates back to when Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Nedjemankh was a senior priest of the ram-god Heryshef of Herakleopolis (now the Ehnasia district in Beni Suef). The coffin no longer contains the mummy of the priest.
The coffin of Nedjemankh is elaborately decorated with scenes and hieroglyphic texts meant to guide the priest on his journey to eternal life.
The gold symbolized the priest’s special relationship with the Egyptian gods. A unique feature of the coffin are the thin layers of silver inside the casket, possibly designed to protect the face of the priest during his journey to the afterlife.