Egypt and the US sign agreement to protect cultural heritage

The framework builds on the success of a 2016 deal that targeted the illicit trade of cultural property

The Gold Coffin of Nedjemankh is displayed during a news conference to announce its return the the people of Egypt in New York City, U.S., September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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The US State Department has released details about a memorandum of understanding for cultural heritage protection signed with Egypt on November 30.

According to officials from the State Department, the agreement sets up frameworks to identify, interdict and repatriate trafficked cultural objects and archaeological artefacts from Egypt. It also sets ways to co-ordinate law enforcement activities across US federal and local governments and museums and cultural heritage managers in Egypt and internationally.

The recent deal expands on an earlier agreement from 2016, which likewise targeted the illicit trade of cultural property. The 2016 agreement was the first bilateral deal of its kind between the US and a source country in the Middle East and North African region, and has since been followed by agreements between the US and Libya, Algeria and Morocco.

Most of the illegal trafficking from Egypt’s rich cultural heritage goes first through Europe or the Gulf. As part of this agreement, State Department officials say they are co-ordinating with counterparts in the Gulf in order to stem the flow through the region.

In large part, the goods are ultimately bound for the US. While the sale of trafficked goods has decreased since 2011, when it reached a height due to the instability of Egypt at the time, it remains a serious issue.

This memorandum, like much cultural heritage policy, is predominantly focused on limiting supply.

The chief framework for prosecuting and returning illicitly trafficked goods is a legal one, and the agreement expands the categories that are protected under law by covering new areas with import restrictions. These new categories include archaeological material from the prehistoric era in Egypt, thus increasing the protected date range from approximately 300,000 BCE to 1750, and as well as certain ethnological material from Egypt ranging in date from 1517 to 1914.

Inclusion of the year 1750 is significant because now the US can bring trafficking cases under the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, which defines antiquities as older than 250 years old.

The memorandum also reaffirms and strengthens co-operation among the various law enforcement agencies in the US that monitor cultural property trafficking, including the Cultural Antiquities Task Force, the FBI and the Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations programme of Homeland Security.

Since the 2016 agreement, the US and Egypt have been able to point to several cases where work has been apprehended and ultimately restituted to Egypt, such as a nesting sarcophagus, a child’s sarcophagus and the hand of a mummy dating to the 8th century BCE, in 2016, and a gold coffin from between 150 and 50 BCE that is believed to hold the remains of the high-ranking priest Nedjemankh, in 2019. In a field with many stakeholders, one of the agreement's primary achievements has been harnessing the level of co-operation needed to effect tangible results.

The memorandum was signed in the context of broader bilateral agreements on trade and strategic policy worked out between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Egypt's Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry in November, in Washington.

Egypt remains an important ally of the US, and over the past four decades, the State Department says, the US government invested more than $100 million to preserve Egypt's archaeological sites and cultural objects.

Updated: December 10, 2021, 10:53 AM