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11 Egyptians, one American on trial for smuggling antiquities to the US

The Egyptian judicial authorities will soon begin the trial of 12 defendants accused of smuggling antiquities to the United States, amid repeated calls to follow up on stolen artifacts that are found abroad.
One of the artifacts recovered from the United States are seen in this undated photo.

CAIRO — The Cairo Court of Appeal has set Nov. 6 as the first trial session for 12 defendants — 11 Egyptians and one American — charged with smuggling hundreds of Egyptian artifacts to the United States, the state-run Dar el-Hilal news agency reported Oct. 18.

The Cairo Court of Appeal charged Oct. 18 an American and 11 Egyptians with felonies, accusing them of smuggling 586 artifacts, some dating back 4,000 years. In February, the JFK International Airport authorities had arrested the American citizen, who is of Egyptian origin, after finding in his possession the artifacts stashed in three bags when he arrived in New York.

The first witness in the case, Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, supervisor of the Repatriation Antiquities Department at the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism, revealed during the investigations that he received an email from the Immigration Services at the US Embassy in Cairo, stating that the American defendant had been arrested at the airport in New York with 360 Egyptian artifacts hidden inside three bags that had been registered on an EgyptAir flight from Cairo International Airport.

According to Abdel-Gawad’s testimony, he had obtained information that the American defendant had worked with other suspected smugglers in the past, and that the total number of artifacts in the case reached 586 pieces, whose archaeological evidence was proven after examination, dating back to different historical eras of Egyptian civilization.

He said in his testimony, which the Cairo Live 24 news site received a copy of, “One of the defendants sold the head of a Greek statue in the Christie’s Auctions in 2018, and in 2019 he displayed 70 ushabti statues in the Arte Primitivo catalog, in addition to displaying two Greek royal heads — one of King Ptolemy III and the other of Emperor Severus Alexander — in Christie’s Auctions in 2020.”

Cairo Live 24 also cited the investigations of the Egyptian security services, which stated, “The American defendant tried to legitimize his possession of the antiquities, claiming that they were owned by him through legal inheritance from his grandfather. But when the general administration of possession in the Supreme Council of Antiquities was contacted, no possession records were found.”

Abdel Rahim Rayhan, archaeological expert and member of the Supreme Council of Culture's Committee on History and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor, “Controlling the smuggling of antiquities requires an increase in the value of the financial reward granted to those who find antiquities, in addition to in-kind rewards.”

He called on the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism to register antiquities owned by individuals and allow them to establish a private museum or a private collection in their name, thus giving them the right to display and profit from them as independent museums or affiliated with institutions or universities to ensure that hidden antiquities come to light and prevent their smuggling.

Rayhan called on “transforming the Repatriation Antiquities Department of the ministry into an independent body that includes archaeologists, jurists, diplomats and security personnel, in addition to establishing an anti-smuggling police, supported by the armed forces, and provide it with special equipment and devices to detect and prosecute illegal excavations and international gangs and antiquities dealers.”

He added, “Antiquity repatriation is possible following an official claim by the state, provided that a legal archaeological file is prepared on the antiquity from its discovery until its smuggling.”

Rayhan concluded, “Failing to recover an antiquity after claiming it and providing insufficient evidence would mean losing the right to reclaim.”

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