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If you try to hide a smuggled sarcophagus in a garage in Brooklyn, the feds will track you down

It might seem overly cute for the US government to call an artifact-smuggling investigation "Operation Mummy's Curse." But the name worked when it turned up an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus in a Brooklyn garage.

In 2009, a group of investigators discovered and confiscated the sarcophagus during an investigation into a 7,000-object smuggling ring that stretched from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to Britain and the US. On Wednesday, nearly six years later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned the sarcophagus to Egypt along with a painted horse statue, 65 ancient coins, and a set of stone reliefs from an an Egyptian temple.

Egyptian sarcophagus

From a Brooklyn garage back to Egypt. (Luis Martinez/US Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Luis Martinez/US Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The other items were tracked down during separate investigations into international smuggling rings (part of the "customs" portion of ICE's job).

recovered ancient Egyptian artifacts

The haul. (Luis Martinez/US Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Over the past few decades, there's been increased attention to returning items that are part of another country's "cultural patrimony" — objects that are important to their collective history and heritage. (It typically refers to things made by humans, like the Egyptian artifacts here, but some countries such as Mongolia have also used the idea of "cultural patrimony" to reclaim dinosaur skeletons that were dug up from their land.)

When an artifact of "cultural patrimony" is being smuggled illegally, it's hardly controversial to return it — the hardest part is tracking it down. But a century or two ago, important artifacts weren't "cultural patrimony"; they were just museum pieces. And taking them out of their homelands wasn't called "smuggling" — it was simply archaeology.

When a country demands the return of its patrimony but a museum doesn't want to give it back, the results can get nasty. The Greek government has been trying to get a set of sculptures called the Elgin Marbles back from the British Museum for decades — it even hired Amal Clooney to help make its case last year. Supporters of returning the sculptures to Greece accuse the British of "cultural imperialism," while the Brits essentially argue that the sculptures are simply displayed more prominently and in proper context in Britain than they would be in Greece — which, to be honest, sounds a fair bit like cultural imperialism.