The human cost

In September 2017, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the acquisition of the gilded cartonnage coffin of the first-century BC Egyptian priest Nedjemankh. The coffin was said to have been officially exported from Egypt in 1971 and residing in a private collection since then. In February 2019, the Met announced it was returning the coffin to Egypt. An investigation conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had shown the documented provenance supplied to the Met to be fake and established that the coffin had in fact been recently looted. The coffin was returned to the possession of Egypt on 25 September 2019 at a repatriation ceremony attended by representatives of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, US Homeland Security Investigations, and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The provenance published by the Metropolitan at the time of the acquisition stated that:

The coffin was exported in 1971 from Egypt with an export license granted by the Antiquities Organization / Egyptian Museum, Cairo. It belonged to the stock of Habib Tawadrus, a dealer active since at least 1936, with a shop Habib & Company in Cairo opposite Shepheard’s Hotel, and was exported by the representative of the Tawadrus’ heirs to Switzerland. An official translation of the export license was provided by the German embassy in Cairo in February 1977 for the use of the representative and now owner in Europe. The coffin has remained in the family of that owner until its acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum in 2017.

The District Attorney’s Office revealed this provenance to be completely fraudulent. Its investigation established that the coffin had been looted from somewhere in the Minya region of Egypt, probably in October 2011, passing through the hands of dealers in Dubai and Germany before arriving with Parisian dealer Christophe Kunicki by 2016. One of the German dealers had prepared the forged documents of provenance. The Met subsequently paid Kunicki €3.5 million for the coffin.

Coffin on display in Egypt in 2019

It is sometimes claimed that the trade in antiquities such as the Nedjemankh coffin is a victimless crime, but the opposite is true, and there is often a tragic cost in human life. Between 2012 and 2017, for example, at least 25 people were reported to have died in Egypt while engaged in illegal digging, often under their own homes (AFP 2012; Ahram Online 2016; Ahram Online 2017a; Al-Masry Al-Youm 2015). One was an eleven-year-old boy (Ahram Online 2017b). On top of this, in 2016, two site guards were killed by unknown assailants during an attack on the archaeological site of Dayr al-Barsha in al-Minya governorate (Sutton 2016).

These deaths are caused by the desperate search for precious antiquities such as the gilded coffin, and blame must be placed at the feet of the unscrupulous merchants who trade in such objects and the collectors who buy them. Museums too, such as the Met, even when diligent, should be more acutely aware of the possibly fatally-tainted sources of their acquisitions. It is not simply a cultural property crime, it can quite easily be a matter of life and death. In July 2018, the Met put the coffin on display as the centrepiece of its exhibition “Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin”. Writing up the exhibition and riffing on the gold fetishism of past and present fashionistas, Zachary Small suggested Nedjemankh’s might be “a gilded coffin to die for”. Let us hope that was not literally the case.