Photo of artifact recovered during an Egyptian antiquities smuggling investigation, courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

 Earlier this month, an antiquities dealer pleaded guilty in a smuggling operation that customs officials said was the first time a cultural property network was dismantled within the United States. Two others were indicted in the investigation, which authorities said moved an ancient Egyptian nesting coffin (think Russian nesting dolls with a decaying mamushka at the center) and other artifacts through the United Arab Emirates in 2009.

Interesting background: The customs agent who headed the probe became suspicious when reading the shipping documents that were allegedly falsified to allow the coffin into the country. The papers said the cargo was wooden panels from UAE, but the agent knew UAE didn’t have a lot of trees and therefore didn’t have a lot of wood.

As the investigation unfolded, customs officials seized a Greco-Roman sarcophagus, funerary boats and limestone figures.

Part of the mystery remains unsolved. According to an inscription, the nesting coffin belonged to a woman named Shesepamuntayesher from around 660 to 550 B.C. The mummy wasn’t inside the seized coffin, so one has to ask ” where’s Shesepamuntayesher?”

Below is a release from ICE that adds a few other details:

News Releases April 19, 2012
Antiquities dealer pleaded guilty to smuggling Egyptian cultural property

NEW YORK – An antiquities dealer pleaded guilty earlier this month to smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the United States and making a false statement to law enforcement authorities. The guilty plea comes as a result of an investigation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with the assistance of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Mousa Khouli, aka Morris Khouli, 38, an antiquities dealer who operated a business called Windsor Antiquities in New York and arranged for the purchase and smuggling of a series of Egyptian antiquities between October 2008 and November 2009. This included: a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, a three-part nesting coffin set, a set of Egyptian funerary boats and Egyptian limestone figures.

These antiquities were exported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates,and smuggled into the United States using a variety of illegal methods intended to avoid detection and scrutiny by CBP. This included making false declarations to CBP concerning the country of origin and value of the antiquities; and providing misleading descriptions of the contents on shipping labels and customs paperwork, such as “antiques” “wood panels” and “wooden painted box.” Khouli covered up the smuggling by making false statements to law enforcement authorities, ICE investigators allege.

Most of the smuggled antiquities were recovered by law enforcement at the time the indictment was unsealed July 14, 2011. The innermost coffin of the nesting set was seized during a search of Khouli’s residence in September 2009. The middle coffin and most of the outer coffin lid were seized in November 2009, after they arrived via sea cargo at the Port of Newark, N.J. The sarcophagus, funerary boats and limestone figures were seized during a search of co-defendant Joseph A. Lewis II’s residence in July 2011.

The missing pieces of the coffin lid were forfeited to the government in court Wednesday. They consist of four wooden bird-like figures that attach to the four corners of the coffin lid, and four wooden panels that comprise the rectangular bottom of the coffin lid. Hieroglyphics on the coffin indicate that the name of the deceased was “Shesepamuntayesher” and that she bore the title “Lady of the House.”

Khouli faces up to 20 years in federal prison. He also entered into a stipulation of settlement resolving a civil complaint seeking forfeiture of the Egyptian antiquities, Iraqi artifacts, cash and other pieces of cultural property seized in connection with the government’s investigation.

ICE HSI agents also arrested: Salem Alshdaifat, an antiquities dealer who operated a business called Holyland Numismatics in Bloomfield, Mich.; and Joseph Lewis, a collector and benefactor of Egyptian antiquities. Ayman Ramadan, a Jordanian antiquities dealer, who operated a company called Nafertiti Eastern Sculptures Trading, in Dubai, UAE, was also indicted.

Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 2,500 items to more than 23 countries.