Treasure chest: How the Met Gala Ball (and Kim Kardashian) exposed an antiquities smuggling ring

Or: The Kardashian Coffin Kidnap Caper

There’s an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians where Kim gets her ass x-rayed to prove that she doesn’t have implants in her butt. There’s also the one where Kim swings a handbag at Khloé for being mean about her, yelling: “Don’t be fucking rude! I’ll fucking hurt you!” And there was the time she gets into a fight with Kourtney and delivers a devastating verbal blow: “She’s the least interesting to look at.” So it might come as a surprise that Kim Kardashian, reality TV star and Instagram queen, played a significant part in exposing a murky network of international antiquity smugglers.

At the Met Gala of 2018, where the biggest celebs in the world gather to preen on the red carpet outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Kim posed for a photo that cracked open a years-long investigation into looted artefacts. She stood, clad in a shimmering gold chainmail dress that she co-designed with Donatella Versace, next to the coffin of Nedjemankh, a high-ranking Egyptian priest from the 1st Century BC who served the ram-headed god Heryshef of Herakleopolis. Kim’s dress sparkles with two crucifixes, Nedjemankh is covered with inscriptions of gods and spells for the dead.

Shortly after Kim was papped at the Met, Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, received a tip-off. Bogdanos, a former colonel in the Marines who tracked down thousands of treasures stolen during the invasion of Iraq, is the head of the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit. This team is composed of two groups of people so distinct they merit their own sitcom: urbane analysts with “advanced degrees” and New York City detectives with “grit and determination and street smarts”. What a combo.

The message Bogdanos received came from a thief who had been double crossed on a deal to smuggle Nedjemankh out of Egypt, and having seen the photos of Kim next to his prize, decided to turn on his former partners in crime. It ultimately led Bogdanos to blow a far-reaching ring of smugglers who spirited this 2,000-year-old treasure out of the Nile Delta and into the hallowed halls of the Met, where Hollywood stars could pout next to it.

This whole fiasco is thrillingly retold in Art Bust, a podcast by Ben Lewis, which documents how the Met – the most prestigious museum in America, if not the world – greedily paid $4 million for Nedjemankh’s gold coffin. Lewis snags a long interview with Bogdanos, whose wonderfully gravelly New York accent belongs in a special exhibit, and describes how the Met’s curators fell for what turned out to be a really obvious fraud.

Antiquities looting flourishes in the wake of geopolitical upheaval, and the Arab Spring heralded open season on Egypt’s treasures. Nedjemankh was hauled out of his resting place in the Minya region of southern Egypt, his mummified remains dumped into the Nile, and his coffin sent – amazingly – by Fed Ex to Germany, disguised as Greco-Roman tat. In Hamburg, the process to turn Nedjemankh from stolen relic to legitimate museum piece began.

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