Coffin it upCoffin it up

Israel to return stolen sarcophagi

Egyptian coffin covers were discovered by Israel Antiquities Authority officials last March in Jerusalem

Egyptian sarcophagus detail (photo credit: courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)
Egyptian sarcophagus detail (photo credit: courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)

Israel has agreed to return two ancient Egyptian coffin covers that were discovered in Jerusalem this past March.

According to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said that his ministry had formed a task force that, with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, had negotiated with Israel for over a year to secure the return of the sarcophagi, which were discovered by Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) officials during an inspection of a shop in Jerusalem’s Old City.

It is suspected that the sarcophagus pieces were looted sometime during last year’s revolution in Egypt, then brought into Israel for authentication in preparation for being sold abroad.

The two pieces, made of palm wood and plaster with elaborate painting, were cut in half to facilitate fitting into a regular suitcase, an act the IAA says caused “irreparable damage.” Carbon-14 dating has confirmed that the covers are thousands of years old: the older one dates from between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE, the other from the 16th to 14th centuries BCE.

Osama al-Nahas, general director for the Retrieved Antiquities Department in Egypt, was quoted as saying that the owner of the shop where the sarcophagi were found had claimed to have bought the artifacts in Dubai and legally transferred them to Israel by way of London.

According to the IAA, “until recently, antiquities dealers and other entities have exploited loopholes in the law whereby they brought antiquities into the country for the purpose of ‘laundering’ them.'” In Israel, owners of stolen artifacts can obtain documentation that would enable them to be sold in the open market as “artifacts… ostensibly of Israeli provenance.”

A new law that took effect in late April aims to curtail the practice.

“The new regulation will provide us with the tools… to prevent the importation into the country of antiquities that were stolen or plundered in other countries, thus enabling us to thwart the international cycle of robbery and trade in stolen archaeological artifacts,” said IAA official Shai Bar-Tura.

Ynet reported that the IAA spokesman “acknowledges the fact that the artifacts belong to the Egyptian people and culture and is interested in finding a legal way to return them to Egypt.”

Throughout the negotiations between Israel and Egypt, the items were held by the IAA in climate controlled conditions in Jerusalem.

This Egyptian sarcophagus was cut in half to facilitate smuggling (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)
This Egyptian sarcophagus cover was cut in half to facilitate smuggling (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)

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