U.S. Returns Looted Sarcophagus to Egypt

The “Green Coffin” had been at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences since 2013

Green Coffin
Egyptian officials with the ancient sarcophagus on January 2, 2023 AFP / Getty Images

At a ceremony in Cairo this week, United States authorities returned a looted ancient sarcophagus to Egypt.

“A precious piece of Egypt’s history was recovered after cooperation with our friends in the U.S., and after efforts that lasted for several years,” said Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, at the time, per Al Jazeera.

The nearly ten-foot-tall coffin had been on display for years at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences. Following an investigation, officials concluded that it had been illegally smuggled into the country.

Nicknamed the “Green Coffin,” the artifact is made of wood and painted with bright colors. Likely once belonging to an ancient Egyptian priest named Ankhenmaat, it dates back to Egypt’s Late Dynastic Period, the years between the last Pharaohs’ rule in 664 B.C.E. and the time of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E., officials told the Associated Press (AP).

About 15 years ago, a “multinational network of antiquities smugglers” stole the sarcophagus from the Abu Sir Necropolis, located in northern Egypt, reports BBC News’ David Gritten. Next, it was transported through Germany to the U.S. A private collector bought it, eventually loaning it to the Texas museum in 2013.

It’s estimated to be worth over $1 million, according to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

“This stunning coffin was trafficked by a well-organized network that has looted countless antiquities from the region,” said Bragg in a September statement, issued after his office determined that the sarcophagus had been looted. “We are pleased that this object will be returned to Egypt, where it rightfully belongs.”

The smugglers, known as the Dib-Simonian network, were also responsible for looting the 2,100-year-old “Gold Coffin” in 2011, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. An art dealer sold the artifact—which came with forged documents—to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for $4 million in 2017. After an investigation, the museum returned it to Egypt in 2019.

Just a few months ago, investigators seized several dozen antiquities from the Met, which were then repatriated to Italy and Egypt.

The Green Coffin’s return is part of a larger effort by scholars and museumgoers to repatriate Egyptian artifacts, which have been scattered the world over. In 2021, Egypt saw the return of 5,300 looted artifacts from across the globe, the AP reports.

“Egypt is one of the countries that’s had the most consistent, driven repatriation effort,” Alice Procter, a historian of material culture and the author of The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums and Why We Need to Talk About It, told Smithsonian magazine’s Lauren Keith last month. “The Egyptian government has been largely pretty successful in getting objects returned, and that’s partially due to the fact that so many pieces have been taken illegally in a very easily documented way.”