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US citizen indicted for smuggling ancient Egyptian artifacts in dirty suitcase

Some of the 590 relics smuggled into New York's JFK airport were nearly 4,000-years-old, federal prosecutors say
A sample of some of the Egyptian artifacts confiscated by US Customs and Border Protection agents (US Department of Homeland Security)

A US citizen has been indicted for allegedly trying to smuggle hundreds of Egyptian artifacts inside a "dirt-caked suitcase" through New York's JFK airport, federal prosecutors said.

Prosecutors on Monday said Ashraf Omar Eldarir, 47, is being charged on two counts of smuggling. One of the charges stems from the incident in JFK, which took place in January, while the other is over an earlier trip involving the smuggling of a single artifact - an ancient Egyptian polychrome relief.  

If convicted, Eldarir faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail for each of the two counts. 

Eldarir was caught in January allegedly carrying three suitcases covered in dirt and filled with 590 bubble-wrapped antiquities, federal prosecutors said in a Justice Department statement.

"These cultural treasures travelled across centuries and millennia, only to end up unceremoniously stuffed in a dirt-caked suitcase at JFK," said Richard P Donoghue, US attorney for the eastern district of New York.

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When US Customs and Border Protection agents opened the packages "loose sand and dirt spilled out, and some of the items smelled of wet earth, indicators that the artifacts had been recently excavated", the statement said. 

According to court documents, among the items recovered were gold amulets from a funerary set; a relief with the cartouche of a Ptolemaic king that was originally part of a royal building or temple; wooden tomb model figures with linen garments dating to approximately 1900 BCE; and two complete Roman period funerary stelae of the type found at Kom abu Bellou in Egypt. 

Prosecutors said Eldarir did not have any of the required documentation from Egypt authorising the export of the artifacts.

"Eldarir's alleged smuggling of 590 artifacts pillaged from Egypt is yet another example of an individual seeking to profit by stealing history from another nation," said Homeland Security investigation special agent-in-charge Peter Fitzhugh, as quoted in the Justice Department statement. 

According to the group Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), the majority of Egypt's key archaeological sites have fallen victim to looting since 2011, when popular protests succeeded in overthrowing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. 

Billions of dollars in artifacts have been stolen, leaving the antiquities market inundated with Egyptian artifacts, the group said.