Jan 3, 2023 - News

Looted sarcophagus returned to Egypt from Houston museum

A wooden sarcophagus with a pale green face

The sarcophagus, known as the Green Coffin, is finally home. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office; Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

A looted sarcophagus once on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science was finally returned to Egypt this week, marking the end of a years-long fight to repatriate the piece.

Catch up quick: The bright-green wooden artifact — believed to belong to the ancient Egyptian priest Ankhenmaat — was looted from a tomb in Abusir al-Malaq in northern Egypt around 2008 by an elaborate group known as the Dib-Simonian network, according to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

  • The artifact, valued at more than $1 million, traded hands several times before it was purchased by a private collector, who loaned it to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 2013.
  • It remained on display until some time last year when it was seized by the New York prosecutor's office.

Details: The large, 9-foot coffin lid dates back to the Late Dynastic Period of ancient Egypt between 664 and 332 B.C., according to the Associated Press.

Driving the news: The artifact was formally returned to Egypt on Monday during a ceremony featuring U.S. diplomats and key Egyptian officials.

What they're saying: "A precious piece of Egypt's history was recovered after cooperation with our friends in the U.S., and after efforts that lasted for several years," Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in Al Jazeera.

Of note: A spokesperson declined to answer questions about the museum's vetting process for artifacts that are donated or on loan.

  • "HMNS has never owned the artifact and was not involved with its removal from the Arab Republic of Egypt," spokesperson Sami Mesarwi told Axios. "As a courtesy, once we learned of the circumstances regarding the piece, we facilitated its immediate return. HMNS is fully supportive of repatriation efforts for antiquities illegally removed from their country of origin."

The big picture: Egypt is cracking down on looted antiquities, having successfully repatriated more than 5,300 stolen artifacts in 2021 alone, Al Jazeera reported.

  • Having the items on display in Egyptian museums helps boost the country's economy and tourism industry, which has been ailing in recent years, officials told the publication.

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Houston.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Houston stories


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Houston.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more