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How “Operation Mummy’s Curse” is Helping Fight Terrorism

Selling illicit relics is the third most profitable wing of the black market, after drugs and weapons

(Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

After six years, an Egyptian sarcophagus is finally making it’s way home after federal agents found it stashed in a Brooklyn garage.

The coffin, which was inscribed with the name “Shesepamutayesher,” is just one of several artifacts recovered in a 2009 raid that are now being returned to their rightful owners, writes Kathleen Caulderwood for the International Business Times. In recent years, federal investigators have seized $2.5 million in stolen antiquities as part of an investigation called Operation Mummy’s Curse.

The global trade in stolen artifacts isn’t fueled by an Indiana Jones like quest for adventure: in addition to plundering the cultural heritage of countries in strife, the money made by selling ancient treasures on the black market sometimes helps to fund groups like the Islamic State.

“During a time of war people take advantage of the lack of security,” art and cultural heritage lawyer Leila Amineddoleh tells Caulderwood. “The problem is that there’s a market for these objects. If there wasn’t a market there wouldn’t be sale or demand.”

It’s unclear exactly how much money smugglers make from selling looted objects, but according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement selling illicit relics is the third most profitable wing of the black market, after drugs and weapons. When civil war broke out in Syria in 2013, investigators noticed a sharp rise in antiquities imported from the war-torn country — about $11 million, or a 134 percent rise from the year before. But despite some successes, Operation Mummy’s Curse is an uphill battle.

Even when a smuggler is caught red-handed like antiques dealer Mousa “Morris” Khouli was with a mummy in his garage, sentences tend to be relatively light, writes Caulderwood. Khouli and his accomplices could have gotten up to 20 years in prison each. But none of them served time. While Khouli received the harshest sentence of the bunch, he left the courtroom with only one year of probation, six months of house arrest and 200 hours of community service.

But since the Islamic State group began publicizing its habit of demolishing and looting historical sites for sale on the black market, politicians have begun to take the issue more seriously. Last month, several members of Congress introduced the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, which would direct the president to restrict importing archaeological items from Syria.

For now, though, there’s no need to fret about Shesepamutayesher’s Curse: her sarcophagus was finally returned to Egyptian authorities during a recent ceremony, sparing Brooklyn from this particular mummy’s revenge.


h/t International Business Times

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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