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French tourist detained in Egypt over ‘4,500-year-old’ souvenir statue

The woman was held by police after buying the statuette for €250 at a luxury store

A view of ancient sphinx states and temples in Egypt

Despite her ordeal the woman said that the actual trip to Egypt’s ancient archeological sites had been ‘a magical voyage’ Pic: Dietwal / Shutterstock

A French tourist has told how she was detained in Egypt after being stopped at the airport on suspicion of trying to smuggle out an ancient Egyptian artefact in her luggage at the end of a holiday.

The woman - Nathalie, a lawyer - said she had bought the statuette - depicting a figure in a seated position, looking up - believing it to be a replica. She said she had paid the equivalent of €250 for it in a luxury shop.

She was held at a Luxor police station for eight days before being allowed to return home. 

Nathalie, 56, and friends had been holidaying in Egypt for 10 days, visiting some of the country’s prized archaeological sites. The group told Ouest France that on the last day, they went to an upmarket hotel and bought the metal statuette.

“We wanted to do it the right way,” said Nathalie’s friend Nicolas, who was travelling with her, to explain why the group went to a high-end shop. Nathalie herself said that because the vendor was well-established, she believed that buying from the shop would be “risk free”. 

But when Nathalie’s bags were searched at airport security, inspectors found the item, and accused her of trying to steal a precious artefact.

Three experts were called, and two of them said they believed the statuette to be an antique piece that could be up to 4,500 years old. Police then took Nathalie to Luxor police station. 

Court complications

She was later accompanied and supported by the Egyptian representative of the company she had booked through, Voyageurs du Monde. He helped her to translate, and also contacted ambassadors and governments to help.

She appeared before a court a day later where the judge accepted that she had been acting in good faith and had bought the statue believing it to be a souvenir copy of an artefact, not the real thing.

However the judgement required validation from the country’s National Security Agency, based in Cairo. This was not forthcoming. 

‘Eight days on an iron bench’

Nathalie says she therefore had to stay in the station, sleeping on a sofa and sitting on an iron bench by day.

“This became my daily routine: I was taken out of the office at around 10:00 and put back in the ‘active’ room of the police station. I spent the whole day on a bench,” she said.

Her phone was confiscated. She was able to read books, eating only two bananas per day and drank bottled water in a bid to avoid becoming ill.

‘Egyptian bureaucracy’

After eight days of detainment, Nathalie was able to leave Egypt on February 2, 2024 and was escorted to the airport by police and national security officers before boarding a flight to Paris.

The head of Voyageurs du Monde said that he was surprised at the case, because the company has never had problems in Egypt. Yet, he praised the authorities’ judgement and quick acknowledgement of Nathalie’s innocence despite the long days that followed.

He said: “In this case, it was not a problem of corruption; we were not asked to pay any money. It was more an illustration of the Egyptian judicial bureaucratic machine, in which the National Security must have the last word.”

The statuette is currently subject to a third appraisal on its real value and age.

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