A ring of illegal antiquities dealers was exposed and their shocking relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City revealed, thanks to an apparently innocent picture taken of a famous celebrity influencer at an annual charity event posing next to the ancient golden Nedjemankh sarcophagus.
Connecting Kim Kardashian and Nedjemankh’s Stolen Sarcophagus
A 2018 photograph of Kim Kardashian standing next to an ancient Egyptian coffin at that year’s Met Gala in New York City proved quite the sensation. Kardashian’s shimmering golden dress matched the glittering golden patina of a spectacular sarcophagus, which had once held the mummified remains of Nedjemankh, an Egyptian priest who lived in the first or second century BC. The golden coffin was encased in glass and on public display as a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin” exhibition.
The photo went viral and was distributed all across the world. Among those who saw it on Instagram was a member of a gang of antiquities looters, who immediately recognized it as a coffin his gang had illegally dug up and sold to illicit art and artifact dealers in 2011. The looter had never been paid for his work excavating the coffin, and when he saw Kim Kardashian posing with it he saw a chance to get even with the nest of vipers who’d cheated him.
He sent some pictures of the looted coffin, which were taken immediately after it was unearthed, to someone who had a contact in the New York County District Attorney’s Office. That individual passed those photos, plus the Kardashian picture, along to Manhattan assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos, who was in charge of his office’s multiyear, ongoing investigation of the illegal antiquities market.
Investigating the Stolen Nedjemankh Sarcophagus
Bogdanos had been investigating world-wide antiquities theft since 2013. While the Metropolitan Museum of Art had supposedly obtained Nedjemankh’s coffin honestly and from legitimate dealers, Bogdanos knew disreputable antiquities traders were experts at creating false trails to cover their illicit activities. Consequently, he was more than willing to listen to the astonishing story passed on to him by his informant back in Egypt.
Unfortunately, the first pictures the looter sent were too blurry and indistinct to make a positive ID. But when the assistant DA asked for digital photographs through their mutual source, the looter was able to supply them. Like the earlier photos, they had been taken immediately after the stolen Nedjemankh sarcophagus had been removed from the ground, onsite at the location of the excavation and theft.
Bogdanos and his staff compared these high-quality pictures with more recent images and descriptions of Nedjemankh’s coffin, taken after it suddenly emerged as an item for sale on the legitimate art and artifact trading market. When they saw the images all matched, they knew they had the evidence they needed to expose the chicanery and fraud that lay behind the sale of the Ptolemaic Dynasty-era Egyptian coffin to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A Twisted Tale of Intrigue and Skullduggery
Nedjemankh’s coffin was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for nearly $4 million (€3.5 million) in 2017 from an antiquities dealer in Paris. The antiquities dealer in question was one Christophe Kunicki, who sold Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Near East antiquities to anyone willing to meet his price. The records Kunicki sent to the Met appeared to proove that he’d bought the stolen Nedjemankh sarcophagus from a family of European art collectors, who’d obtained it honestly following its legal export from Egypt in the 1970s.
While these records looked legitimate, they were entirely fake. In reality, the coffin had been dug up by looters working in Egypt’s Minya region in 2011. Tragically, they dumped Nedjemankh’s mummified remains into the Nile, where they have now been lost forever. The criminal gang, which included looters and traffickers, took advantage of the chaos caused by the 2011 revolution in Egypt to pass the coffin on to a dealer from Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, named Hassan Fazeli. This individual shipped the coffin to Europe under a false label, where it ultimately ended up at the Dionysos Gallery in Hamburg, Germany.
It was the art gallery’s manager, Roben Dib, who apparently acted as the money man in this arrangement. Bogdanos said Dib wired payments to the looters and traffickers back in Egypt, in return for their promise to get Nedjemankh’s coffin to Germany, one way or another. Once the coffin was there, Dib supervised its restoration and apparently created the fake export license that claimed it had been shipped out of Egypt with the Egyptian Museum’s permission in 1971.
The coffin was eventually sent to Christophe Kunicki and his partner Richard Semper in Paris. These individuals claim they were totally taken in by the tall tale concocted by Dib, and had no idea they were dealing in stolen antiquities when they brokered their deal with the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Unfortunately for them, French authorities found this claim unconvincing. The two men were arrested in 2020 and charged with fraud, money laundering, and forgery. They are currently awaiting trial. Dib was also arrested in 2020 and charged with a list of similar crimes in Germany, and as of now the status of his case is unknown.
Meanwhile, after they were informed of the results of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office investigation in 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art canceled their “ Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin ” exhibit and arranged to have the coffin returned to Egypt shortly thereafter. They apologized for their role in the trafficking of the illegally obtained artifact and promised to review and update their acquisition procedures to decrease the likelihood of something like that happening again in the future.
The Truth about Organized Crime in Archaeology
This story broke in 2019, but received a renewed round of publicity recently after it was discussed by British journalist Ben Lewis in The Times , as well as in a July episode of his podcast “Art Bust: Scandalous Stories of the Art World” from Antica Productions . It is extraordinary to realize that this story might not have come out at all had Kim Kardashian had not decided to randomly pose for a picture alongside Nedjemankh’s shiny stolen sarcophagus at the 2018 Met Gala.
As it turns out, this case represented the tip of a very large iceberg. In a 2019 New York County District Attorney press release, the Manhattan Antiquities Trafficking Unit announced it had recovered more than $150 million worth of stolen antiquities within its jurisdiction since it was launched in 2013.
While the Unit’s investigation into Nedjemankh’s stolen sarcophagus didn’t put a halt to the illegal international antiquities trade, it did at least slow it down, exposing some of the individuals who were deeply involved in its operations in the process. The best news about this case is that Nedjemankh’s stolen sarcophagus is now back in its land of origin, on display to visitors from all over the world at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat.
Top image: Left: Kim Kardashian. Right: The stolen Nedjemankh sarcophagus. Source: Left: Nicole Alexannder / CC BY 3.0 . Right: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By : Nathan Falde – ANCIENT ORIGINS