A British couple arrested in Egypt on suspicion of trying to smuggle priceless artifacts out of the country will return home tonight after it emerged that the objects had in fact been purchased at a local tourist bazaar.
Michael Newey, 65, and his wife Angela, 62, were stopped at Luxor International Airport by officials trying to clamp down on the burgeoning illegal trade in looted antiquities.
According to international news agency reports the couple, who are believed to have lived in Egypt for the past nine years, were carrying 19 objects in their luggage.
These were said to include Pharonic statues, a Greco-Roman bronze coin, ancient manuscripts and a 16th century Bible which are protected under Egypt’s antiquity and cultural laws.
It was reported that Mrs Newey smashed three of the items as they were being examined by experts from the Ministry of Antiquities and that the police were called.
The seized pieces are now being prepared to be transported to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where they are due to be examined by a specialist committee.
However it has emerged that the couple were released after it became clear that the objects were almost certainly cheap fakes purchased in the local market where convincing reproductions – often made in China – are openly on sale to tourists.
Luxor, which stands on the site of the ancient city of Thebes is home to some of the country’s richest archaeology including the Valley of the Kings and the Karnak Temple.
The Britons told officials that the coin, originally believed to date back to Roman times, was in fact from Romania.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office in London said the couple were on their way home.
“I can confirm the arrest of two British nationals at Luxor International Airport. They have been released and are travelling back to the UK,” he said.
The arrests were announced by antiquities minister Dr Mohamed Ibrahim, and Hassan Rasmi, head of the central administration of ports.
The local English language newspaper the Luxor Times said the Britons deserved an apology once it had been established the items were fake.
“Otherwise don’t expect any tourists to buy a souvenir from the local market for five pounds as it may fool someone who should have studied for many years to be a professional and think it is genuine,” it added.
Although Egypt’s antiquities have been looted by outsiders for centuries, security has deteriorated since the overthrow of President Mubarak last year when several pieces went missing from the Egyptian Museum including a gilded wood statue of the pharaoh Tutankhamen.
The Arab Spring has led to a dramatic upsurge in the trade across North Africa as smugglers sought to take advantage of the turmoil.
Meanwhile national authorities are increasingly demanding that key artifacts be returned to their place of origin. Dr Ibrahim recently alerted Interpol and the customs authorities to a red list of stolen artifacts missing from Egypt. Details have been circulated to international auction houses to prevent them being sold on. Earlier this month the Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation warned dealers and collectors to be on the look out for missing relics.
Irina Bokova said: “This heritage is part of humanity's history and Egypt’s identity. It must not be allowed to vanish into unscrupulous hands, or run the risk of being damaged or even destroyed.”