NEW YORK — Following an investigation by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York’s Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquities (CPAA) unit with assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Ashraf Omar Eldarir, a U.S. citizen, is being charged with smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the United States. Eldarir, 47, was previously arrested on a complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York (EDNY) in February 2020, after arriving at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport with three suitcases filled with undeclared Egyptian antiquities.
“These cultural treasures traveled across centuries and millennia, only to end up unceremoniously stuffed in a dirt-caked suitcase at JFK,” stated United States Attorney for EDNY, Richard P. Donoghue. “We commend our CBP and HSI partners for their excellent work and, with them, we stand ready to investigate and prosecute those who attempt to profit from the illegal smuggling of irreplaceable ancient artifacts.”
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection is extremely proud to have played an important role in the seizing of these Egyptian antiquities as this would be smuggler attempted to enter the country with his illegally obtained artifacts,” stated CPB Director of Field Operations Troy Miller. “CBP’s cooperation with HSI and the Eastern District of New York demonstrates the continuing resolve of law enforcement in the United States to address illegal trafficking in stolen artifacts.”
As set forth in court filings, on Jan. 22, 2020, Eldarir arrived at JFK from Egypt with three checked suitcases. Eldarir falsely declared to CBP that he was carrying goods valued at only $300 U.S. dollars. However, when CBP officers opened Eldarir’s suitcases they found approximately 590 bubble and foam-wrapped Egyptian antiquities. When the protective wrapping was opened, loose sand and dirt spilled out, and some of the items smelled of wet earth, indicators that the artifacts had been recently excavated. Among the items recovered by law enforcement officers are 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 adhering dating to approximately 1900 BCE, and two complete Roman period funerary stelae of the type found at Kom abu Bellou in Egypt. Eldarir did not produce any of the required documentation from Egypt authorizing the export of the artifacts. Eldarir was charged with one count of smuggling arising from this incident and one count of smuggling involving an earlier trip in which he smuggled an ancient Egyptian polychrome relief.
The charges in the indictment are allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. If convicted, Eldarir faces a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment on each count. The government’s case is being handled by the EDNY’s General Crimes Section. EDNY’s Civil Division is handling forfeiture matters.
HSI is the investigative arm for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illicit distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, specializing in recovering works that have been reported lost or stolen. HSI’s International Operations, through its 77 offices in 51 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations. Despite increasingly aggressive enforcement efforts to prevent the theft of cultural heritage and other antiquities, the illicit movement of such items across international borders continues to challenge global law enforcement efforts to reduce the trafficking of such property. Trafficking in antiquities is estimated to be a multi-billion dollar transnational criminal enterprise.
HSI is committed to pursuing a strategy to combat transnational organized crime related to the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts by targeting high priority organizations and strengthening international law enforcement partnerships. The public, government and private institutions often aid HSI in identifying, investigating and prosecuting illicitly trafficked cultural property. If you have information about the illicit trade of cultural property or art, call the HSI Tip Line, 1-866-DHS-2423 or report tips online.
For information specific to the New York area, email HSINYTRADE@ice.dhs.gov.