On February 15, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned the gilded Coffin of Nedjemankh to the government of Egypt after discovering that it had been looted from the country in 2011. An entire exhibit, titled Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin, had been staged around the stunningly preserved piece with 70 other Egyptian artifacts since July 2018. Scheduled to run until April 21, 2019, the exhibit immediately ended when the stolen nature of the coffin was revealed.

The Coffin of Nedjemankh that was returned to Egypt. Image: The Met The Coffin of Nedjemankh that was returned to Egypt. Image: The Met

The museum purchased the coffin for almost $4 million in 2017 from Christophe Kunicki, an art and antiquities dealer in Paris. Kunicki led museum staff to believe that the coffin had been legally removed from the country in 1971 by providing a forged export license and other fake documentation. In fact, the museum discovered that it was likely stolen just eight years ago.

Christophe Kunicki at the far right, the antiques dealer who allegedly sold the coffin to The Met in 2017. Image: La Nouvelle Republique Christophe Kunicki at the far right, the antiques dealer who allegedly sold the coffin to The Met in 2017. Image: La Nouvelle Republique

According to the Antiquities Coalition, a non-profit founded in 2015 to combat the illegal trade of antiquities globally, prior to the 1960s, removing artifacts and selling them was largely unsupervised, and generally accepted. However, in the '60s museums and archaeological sites started to report the thefts as antiquities appeared in the art market and private collections. In 1970, UNESCO spearheaded laws, which the US ratified in 1972, to more closely scrutinize antiquities imports coming into the country.

The Valley of the Kings looted in Egypt. Image: Robert Clark for National Geographic The Valley of the Kings looted in Egypt. Image: Robert Clark for National Geographic

However, due to recent wars and political unrest, including lack of security at ancient sites, looting of antiquities has become prevalent again. This type of theft was particularly a problem in Egypt after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and profits raised by the illegal trade of these antiquities was discovered to be a source of funding for terrorist groups like ISIS.

The library in Zabid, Yemen, that was looted by Houthi rebels. Image: Alsahwa Yemen The library in Zabid, Yemen, that was looted by Houthi rebels. Image: Alsahwa Yemen

An echoing of the Egyptian situation is occurring now in Yemen, as the country's civil war has led to the plundering of churches, libraries, museums and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Antiquities Coalition reports that over $8 million worth of Yemeni antiquities were imported to the US between 2008-2018. The sales of these plundered treasures are said to be funding the Houthi rebels in the country's civil war, as well as other terrorist groups, and are stripping Yemen of its rich cultural history. In March 2019, Yemen asked the US government for help with this crisis and are requesting the issue of a ban on Yemeni antiquities in to the US.

The Roman marble relief sculpture, dating to the 2nd century AD, was returned to Italy by Christie's. Image: Christie's via CNN The Roman marble relief sculpture, dating to the 2nd century AD, was returned to Italy by Christie's. Image: Christie's via CNN

In light of this cultural racketeering in recent years, museum collections and the art market have been under inspection. Earlier this February, Christie's returned eight pillaged antiquities to Italy that were revealed to have been stolen from Rome's Villa Borghese and Catacombs in the latter half of the 20th century. In November of 2018, the French president Emmanuel Macron called for the repatriation of 26 Benin bronzes at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris to Nigeria, which disappeared when the Behanzin palace was raided in 1892. The British Museum also agreed to return Benin bronze plaques back to Nigeria, but just on loan. In fact, Reuters reported in November that "over 90% of Africa's cultural heritage is believed to be in Europe."

The Benin Bronzes that the British Museum has agreed to loan back to Nigeria. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images The Benin Bronzes that the British Museum has agreed to loan back to Nigeria. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The British Museum announced in January 2019 that it has established a program titled "Circulating Artefacts," with a mission to create an "online semantic database of Egyptian and Nubian antiquities in circulation on the international art market and in private collections" to "make the art market more transparent, while acting as a deterrent to looting and other illicit activity."

Max Hollein, director of The Met, echoed the British Museum's objective, stating “Our museum must be a leader among our peers in the respect for cultural property and in the rigor and transparency of the policy and practices that we follow. We will learn from this event—specifically I will be leading a review of our acquisitions program—to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future."

Stolen relief from a London collection, identified by the British Museum in 2014 as coming from a building of Thutmose IV in Karnak, now repatriated to Egypt. © Marcel Marée Stolen relief from a London collection, identified by the British Museum in 2014 as coming from a building of Thutmose IV in Karnak, now repatriated to Egypt. © Marcel Marée

In March, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam also announced that they are considering opening up the discussion on the return of artifacts in their collection to the countries of origin. Since they have begun to examine the colonial heritage of several artifacts in the collections, the head of the museum, Taco Dibbits has stated that this process should have been begun earlier and that there is no excuse. The ten objects that may be returned were originally from Sri Lanka and Indonesia, but in fact there are over a thousand stolen objects from the colonial era in the Rijksmuseum's collections.

As global dialogue around the exchange of antiquities increases, hopefully more stringent conditions will be put in place by the US government, as well as in museums and auction houses, to thoroughly inspect the provenance of antiquities and ensure that they remain in accurate historical context for future generations.

Search all ancient art on Barnebys