The monuments of Egypt are the heritage of everyone around the world.

— Zahi Hawass

A Victory in the Fight Against the Illicit Antiquities Trade

 

I am so happy to be able to announce that there has just been an important victory in the fight against the buying and selling of stolen antiquities. Recently, the United States Department of Homeland Security has arrested three suspects in New York City – these people were allegedly part of an international organization that smuggled more than $2.5 million worth of artifacts from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, including Egypt, over the last eight years. I am proud that the Supreme Council of Antiquities (now the MSA) was able to play a role in the success of this investigation.

 

 

In 2009, U.S. customs authorities seized a shipment of antiquities on their way to a gallery in New York City. This shipment included an ancient Egyptian coffin, which the Ministry of State for Antiquities (then the Supreme Council of Antiquities) was able to help authenticate. By investigating this and other suspicious shipments, Homeland Security investigators were able to reveal a network of smugglers and collectors that reached to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Iraq, and other countries. I have been following this case ever since the U.S. authorities approached us for help – I have not been able to discuss it in public, however, because the information was sensitive, and could have jeopardized the outcome. I have to say that it was like something from a movie. Hollywood could make this case into a blockbuster hit!

The three important suspects taken into custody this week were Salem Alshdaifat, who operated a business called Holyland Numismatics in Michigan; Joseph Lewis, a collector of Egyptian antiquities; and Mousa Kouli, whose New York-based business was called Windsor Antiquities. According to evidence gathered by the investigators, the suspects had been using their New York gallery to import and sell stolen artifacts, allowing them to funnel large sums of money to other criminals in many parts of the world. I hope that if they are found guilty, these criminals will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

For me, this case is important for many reasons. I have often pointed out that the buying and selling of stolen artifacts encourages looting, which destroys irreplaceable information about the past as objects are ripped from their original context with no scientific recording. The discovery and disruption of this smuggling ring shows the scale of this problem in the world today. Although there has been a major victory in this case, there are still many looters and antiquities smugglers operating around the world. It is important to note that a suspect in the New York case named Ayman Ramadan, a Jordanian citizen living in the U.A.E., has not turned himself in and is now considered a fugitive. We must continue to fight the trade in stolen artifacts with energy and dedication.

Furthermore, the international nature of the smuggling organization in this case shows us how important it is for countries around the world to cooperate in fighting the illegal antiquities trade. The hard work of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is an example of how our friends around the world can contribute to our efforts to protect cultural heritage. Next week, in fact, Homeland Security personnel will be in Cairo to teach a workshop for Egyptian customs and border agents. I have been actively working to improve Egypt’s ability to prevent looted artifacts from leaving our country, and this type of cooperation with foreign experts will certainly enhance our capabilities in this regard. Not only is this simply the right thing to do, but it can also build priceless goodwill among different countries and cultures. I hope that countries that are less active than Egypt and the U.S. in fighting the illegal antiquities trade will take notice of cases like this most recent one in New York, and step up their own efforts to fight the illegal trafficking of artifacts.

The Revolution of January 25th has given us here in Egypt a unique opportunity to create a better future for generations to come. It is my belief that our ancient heritage can be an important source of pride and identity as we move forward, and that it can also help us to build bridges to the world. I hope that the capture in New York of these antiquities smugglers can remind us of what we can accomplish when we work together, both within Egypt and with our friends around the world, to protect the legacy of the past.