An interesting case of cultural property repatriation occurred recently between the United States and Egypt. The U.S. returned a 3,000-year-old ancient wooden sarcophagus to the Arab Republic of Egypt in a ceremony hosted by the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. Two federal agencies, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), were clued into the artifact’s sketchy background after it was intercepted at Miami International Airport in 2008. Their two-year international investigation eventually led them to interview the Spanish Gallery responsible for exporting the sarcophagus. When evidence of legal export–that is, a credible provenance detailed in the proper paperwork–could not be furnished by either importer or the gallery, ICE and CBP determined that the ancient sarcophagus was the stolen cultural property of Egypt and so belonged to the Egyptian people.
CBP Assistant Commissioner Allen Gina said about the repatriation, “Through the facilitation and enforcement of U.S. trade laws, this artifact will provide the Egyptian people a key to their past. Customs and Border Protection is pleased to work in partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce U.S. customs law and to return priceless artifacts to their lawful owner.”
While not all instances of repatriation end so quickly and painlessly, this particular example indicates that some great progress is ongoing between international governments of two key nations in the illicit antiquities trade–The U.S. “market” and its “source” Egypt. As a major art importing and consuming nation, the United States, for certain, receives a mixed approval rating in regards to its stance on international cultural property issues. As a student of Cultural Heritage Studies, I am comforted in knowing that my home country is beginning to take a leadership role in the repatriation of Egyptian antiquities illicitly acquired on the market.