Egyptian Antiquities Seized from the Met Amid Investigation into Artifact Smuggling Ring

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The coffin that was seized from the Met in 2019 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Five Egyptian antiques worth over $3 million have been seized from the Metropolitan Museum. The confiscation is part of an extensive investigation into the international trade in Egyptian antiquities. The investigation led to the indictment of former Louvre president and director Jean-Luc Martinez.

The seizure news was first reported by Art Newspaper and confirmed to the publication by the District Attorney’s office, which stated in its warrant that the five items constituted evidence demonstrating criminal possession of the stolen property and a conspiracy to do the same.

The four pieces came from the collection of Robin Deeb, a German-Lebanese merchant suspected by the US and French authorities of selling looted items to art institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Louvre Abu Dhabi. Dib is currently in custody in Paris, where he is awaiting trial on charges of fraud and money laundering. He denied any wrongdoing.

A portrait of a woman dated AD 54-68, which was seized from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is seen in an image released in a search warrant issued by the Supreme Court of the State of New York

Among the artifacts seized were two treasures from the Egyptian section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of them is the magnificent Fayum portrait, a painted panel usually placed on the face of a mummy in Roman Egypt.

This work depicts a woman in a blue dress and dates from around 60 BC. Another confiscated work of Egyptian antiques consists of five fragments of a wall hanging from the 4th or 5th century AD. They are considered one of the oldest images in the Book of Exodus.

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Museum did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the seizure of these works. According to the warrant, both items of Egyptian antiques were sold through the Paris auction house Pierre Bergé & Associates, which employed Christophe Kunicki, the French trader and archeology expert accused in the investigation.

Christophe Kunicki worked as a certified expert in archaeological work for Pierre Berger. He listed the origin of the antiquities sold to the Met as a European collection. The authorities believe this is a collection of three brothers, Simon, Hakob, and Serop Simonyan, suspected of collaborating with Dib.

The Metropolitan Museum has been struggling with its ties to Deeb for several years now. In 2019, a New York-based institution returned an ornate gold sarcophagus to Egypt following a criminal investigation led by Col. Matthew Bogdanos, head of the Antiquities Trade Division of the District Attorney’s office.

Bogdanos concluded that the provenance was falsified before the Met bought it in 2017 for €3.5 million. The Metropolitan Museum bought the sarcophagus directly from Christophe Kunicki, who received it from Dib and the Simonian brothers.

In 2020, Christophe Kunicki and his husband Richard Semper were charged with involvement in antique smuggling. At the time the coffin was confiscated, the Metropolitan Museum apologized in a statement for shortcomings in its Egyptian department’s provenance research and promised to reassess the acquisition process.

The painted linen curtain depicting the Exodus and the Fayum portrait was purchased for $1.4 million and $1.6 million, respectively, between 2013 and 2015.

During this time, the museum also bought a limestone stele (dated 1770 BC) for about $266,000 and a stele (circa 650 BC) depicting an offering table to the god Hathor for about $85,000. The DA’s office also confiscated a sarcophagus mask worth about $6,500. According to Art Newspaper, all the objects were put up for sale by Dib.

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