Posing alongside an ancient Egyptian coffin that seemed to mirror her killer curves, gold outfit and thick mascara, Kim Kardashian must have thought her photo opportunity at the 2018 Met Gala would make great content for Instagram.
But the viral snap of the reality star unexpectedly helped solve a long-running criminal case featuring the golden coffin, forged documents and an international antiquity-looting-and-trafficking ring.
In his recent podcast Art Bust: Scandalous Stories of the Art World, British journalist Ben Lewis delves into the crucial role this seemingly innocuous photo played in pinning down thieves who had stolen the golden coffin of Nedjemankh, from the 1st century BC, and sold it to the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art for $4million using fake documentation.
It had been dug out of the ground during the 2011 Egyptian revolution and, following a series of twists and turns, had landed in the Met in 2018, ahead of the Met Gala on the first Monday of May.
That same month Manhattan assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos was emailed the viral photo of Kim by an informant in the Middle East who had received it from a member of a gang of looters – annoyed that he hadn’t been paid for digging the coffin out of the ground during the Egyptian revolution in 2011.
For Bogdanos, head of the Manhattan DA’s antiquities trafficking unit, Kim’s viral photo was the key to unlocking a long-running case that he had begun investigating in 2013 targeting international antiquities dealers.
The elaborately decorated coffin, viewed by nearly a half-million visitors when it was made the centrepiece of a major exhibition in July 2018, was returned in 2019 to Egypt, where it was displayed at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
In May 2018, Manhattan assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos was emailed the viral photo of Kim by an informant in the Middle East, revealing it had been looted
This ancient Egyptian coffin purchased for near $4million was pulled mid-run from a stunning Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition named after it
The informing looter had seen the image of Kim and the coffin because it had gone viral and he recognised the golden artefact.
‘There’s no honour among thieves,’ Bogdanos said, after explaining the looter had yet to be paid for digging up the artefact, according to The Times.
For half a decade, Bogdanos had been conducting a worldwide electronic surveillance operation by gathering texts, emails and other content stored in the cloud.
Thanks to this, he had hundreds of files capturing freshly excavated antiquities, which looters had dug up and sent photos of to dealers in the hopes of a sale.
In May 2018, Manhattan assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos was emailed the viral photo of Kim (pictured at the Met Gala in 2018) by an informant in the Middle East to whom it had been passed by a member of a gang of looters – the informing looter hadn’t been paid for digging the coffin out of the ground during the Egyptian revolution in 2011
Unfortunately, Bogdanos, who could only act on items when they were within his jurisdiction in New York, could not match any of the low-resolution pictures to the new acquisitions he was aware of.
The informant’s tip-off after seeing Kim’s picture wasn’t enough alone, so Bogdanos requested that the informant ask the looter if he had access to any digital images of the coffin.
The looter sent across photographs of the artefact captured just after it had been excavated and Bogdanos was able to match these to identical photos in emails gathered by his surveillance operation.
Bogdanos, who then opened a grand jury investigation, could now piece together the journey that the artefact had been on and discovered that the coffin had been looted in the Minya region in 2011 during the Egyptian revolution.
The elaborately decorated coffin (pictured), viewed by nearly a half-million visitors when it was made the centrepiece of a major exhibition in July 2018, was returned in 2019 to Egypt, where it was displayed at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo
When digging up the artefact, the looters dumped the mummified remains of Nedjemankh – who was a high priest in ancient Egypt – in the River Nile – but mistakenly left a finger bone inside of the coffin which was still attached when it appeared at the Met.
Bogdanos claimed evidence showed that Dib wired money to the local smugglers and traffickers in exchange for ‘transporting the antiquities to Germany.’
Revealed: The ancient items that the Met’s parted with because they may have been stolen
The ancient Egyptian coffin purchased for near $4million by the Metropolitan Museum of Art before it was returned to Egypt was just the latest of several incidents that raised questions about the thoroughness of the Met’s vetting procedures when acquiring antiquities, according to The New York Times.
The return of the coffin wasn’t the first time the Met had to part with ancient artefacts that may have been stolen.
Around ten years ago, the museum restored ownership of a 2,500-year-old vase known as the Euphronios krater to the Italian government, which believed it had been looted in 1971 from a tomb.
Then in 2017, the district attorney’s office seized from the museum a 4th-century BC terracotta vase, by Greek artist Python, which had been on display in the Met’s Greco-Roman galleries for more than two decades.
The 2,300-year-old piece – which depicts Dionysus, the god of grape-harvest, riding in a cart pulled by a satyr, was said to be looted by tomb raiders in Italy in the 1970s.
In 2018, the museum announced that it was returning two sculptures to India: an eighth-century stone sculpture of a Hindu goddess, Durga Mahishasuramardini, and a limestone sculpture from the third century, Head of a Male Deity.
The Durga was donated in 2015, while the Head of a Male Deity was donated to the Met in 1986. It had discovered the latter was part of the excavated inventory of the Nagarjunakonda Site Museum.
In statements following the return of the Egyptian coffin, museum officials said it would ‘review and revise’ its acquisitions process.
In 2013, the coffin was given to Hassan Fazeli, a dealer in Sharjah, who exchanged emails about it with European details, labelling it ‘the yellow’, according to Bogdanos.
Fazeli completed an export form wrongly labelling it as a Greco-Roman artefact to cover up the coffin’s origins and legality and dispatched it to Europe.
It later came into the hands of Roben Dib, who managed the Dionysos Gallery in Hamburg, which is owned by Serop Simonian. It is unclear what he knew of the coffin’s origins, said The Times.
Dib set up the restoration of the artefact and, according to Bogdanos, faked an Egyptian export licence that illustrated it had been legally exported in 1971.
The coffin was then dispatched to the French antiquities scholar and dealer Christophe Kunicki and his partner Richard Semper. It is unclear what they knew about the coffin’s original origins, said the publication.
They offered it to the Met, with the museum agreeing to pay $4million. However, Bogdanos said in his letter that the curators at the Met should have been more rigorous in investigating the origins of the coffin.
In June 2020 French officials arrested Kunicki and Semper. They were charged with fraud, money laundering and forgery, but the case has not yet gone to trial.
Vincent Noce, an investigator from The Art Newspaper, spoke to Kunicki and Semper last year, who both insisted on their innocence.
In August 2020, German police arrested Dib ‘on suspicion of art trafficking’, according to Noce. Dib told of his ‘complete innocence’ to The Art Newspaper in the same month It’s unclear whether he was charged or convicted. Serop Simonian has not been implicated, said The Times.
Announcing the return of the ancient gilded coffin to Egypt in February 2019, Met CEO Daniel Weiss apologised to the nation’s people and specifically to Antiquities Minister Khaled El-Enany.
‘After we learned that the Museum was a victim of fraud and unwittingly participated in the illegal trade of antiquities, we worked with the DA’s office for its return to Egypt,’ Weiss said.
The museum said it would ‘consider all available remedies to recoup the purchase price of the coffin’ and would commit itself ‘to identifying how justice can be served, and how we can help to deter future offences against cultural property.’
Following the incident, the Met vowed to ‘review and revise its acquisitions process.’
Upon learning they were duped and had unknowingly participated in the illegal trafficking of antiquities, museum officials returned the coffin and cancelled the few months that remained of a Nedjemankh exhibit in February 2019.
MailOnline has contacted the Met for comment.
The almost 6-foot long coffin is sheathed in gold, which the ancient Egyptians associated with the gods. It is inscribed with the name of Nedjemankh, a high-ranking priest of the ram-headed god Heryshef of Herakleopolis.
According to ancient texts, the use of gold in the coffin would have helped the deceased inside to be reborn in the next life.
The coffin’s elaborate exterior has scenes and texts that were intended to give Nedjemankh protection and guide him on his journey from death to ‘eternal life as a transfigured spirit.’
Some unique features include thin sheets of silver foil on the interior of the lid, intended to add more protection, bu this time to Nedjemankh’s face.
Ancient Egyptians considered precious metals to represent the flesh and bones of the gods, or the sun and the moon, reports ARTFIX Daily.
More specifically, they were the eyes of the cosmic deity Heryshef, whom Nedjemankh served.
There’s an inscription on the lid that reads: ‘Oh gold! Oh gold! Oh flesh of the god! Oh flesh of the god! Oh fine gold! Oh fine gold!’
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. gave a special nod to his office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit during the return of the coffin.
In 2019, it was revealed the unit had recovered ‘several thousand stolen antiquities collectively valued at more than $150million, many of which have been returned to their rightful owners and repatriated to their countries of origin,’ Vance’s office said in a released statement.
The returned artifacts include three marble Lebanese statues; a Roman mosaic excavated from the Ships of Nemi; an Etruscan relic stolen from the site of a historic necropolis known as the ‘City of the Dead’; a marble sarcophagus fragment; a Buddhist sculpture stolen from an archaeological dig site; a pair of 12th century Indian statues; a collection of 8th Century B.C.E. bronze statues; and a set of ancient Greek coins, among others.