Egypt is set to take back 114 priceless artefacts smuggled to France and three smuggled to the UK.
Officials from the country have travelled to Paris to retrieve the items from French authorities and return them home, the Public Prosecution office said on Thursday.
Teams from both countries had spent months tracking down the artefacts.
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Dr Mostafa Waziri, director general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, inspected the items and determined that they cover a range of Egypt’s history.
The Egyptian ambassador in France, Alaa Youssef, called the effort an “unprecedented win for bilateral relations” during a ceremony at the embassy.
He said that there had been a major increase in co-operation between the judiciaries of both countries in the last two years and that this had helped them to retrieve the artefacts.
Shortly after the announcement that the items were being brought back to Egypt from France, the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry announced that three smuggled Egyptian artefacts were being recovered from London.
The items were located with the help of the British Museum, which is assisting in returning them to Cairo.
The artefacts, dating from the Pharaonic and Greek age, were sold in London after being smuggled out of Egypt before being recovered by British officials.
Egypt’s prosecutor general, Hamada El Sawy, said the country has been grappling with smuggling of antiquities for millennia and that co-operation was the way to fight the crime.
He said such smuggling was “on every Egyptian’s mind due to the cultural and ancestral importance these relics hold”.
Egyptian security forces, he said, will be implementing better measures to stop further smuggling out of Egypt.
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The crime is punishable with 25 years in prison, with no statute of limitations.
Those convicted of carrying out unlawful excavations on Egyptian soil with the intention of smuggling can receive up to 10 years in prison.
The law also stipulates a jail sentence of between three and seven years and a fine of up to EGP 500,000 ($31,908) for destroying, damaging or altering in any way the original features of a historical artefact.
An antiquities ministry statement from 2018 said that 32,638 artefacts had been lost in the last 50 years.
Despite the government’s efforts to repatriate smuggled artefacts, a large number of Egyptian relics are regularly sold publicly through some of the world’s most prominent auction houses, leading Egyptologist Bassam El Shamaa told The National.
“What is often overlooked when discussing artefact smuggling out of Egypt is the sheer size of the problem,” he said. “It’s not just a couple of pieces that have been stolen, it’s thousands of important artefacts that are constantly being smuggled out and then sold to anonymous buyers. When these pieces are sold, they become virtually untraceable and an important piece of our heritage is lost.”
Mr El Shamaa, who has led multiple national media campaigns to draw attention to the issue of smuggling, explains that there is much more that needs to be done to protect artefacts in Egypt on the government’s part.
“Simple security measures like installing cameras at warehouses, employing round the clock security and cordoning off heritage sites can go a long way,” he said.
He said that the illegal antiquities market is huge and international, likening it to the international drug market.
“Smuggling is not the work of a couple of thieves, it is an international network of criminals who have got quite good at evading security officials. And Egypt is one of the most well-stocked countries when it comes to antiquities,” he said.