Just Out Of Jail: A Smuggler's Story

With his blue blazer, neatly folded pocket square and clipped diction, Jonathan Tokeley-Parry seems every bit the "old-fashioned English gentleman" he considers himself. So it's a little surprising to learn that he's just been released after spending three years in a British jail.

His crime: handling stolen goods. During the 1990s he smuggled more than 3,000 antiquities out of Egypt, selling them to dealers in London and New York for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (He was sentenced in absentia to 15 years' hard labor in Egypt, but doesn't plan to go back to find out if it still stands.) Today, living in Sandwich near the English coast, Tokeley-Parry, 49, remains unrepentant. Had he done what he'd done a century ago, he points out, citing Lord Elgin's appropriation of the famous Greek "marbles" now on display in the British Museum, "I would have been knighted."

Tokeley-Parry is no ordinary smuggler. After graduating in philosophy from Cambridge in 1974, he went to London and became an antiquities restorer-regarded by some as the best in his trade. When he decided to move to Egypt and switch to smuggling, his restoration skills came in handy: he was able to disguise sumptuous works of art as cheap bazaar souvenirs. He dipped a head of Amenhotep III, later valued at $1.1 million, in a clear liquid plastic, then covered it with gold leaf and painted on crude black stripes to make it look like a tatty modern "King Tut" replica. Once he even painted made in Egypt on a statue's base.

The deception, he claimed, was meant to preserve the pieces, not destroy them. "As long as these objects are where the power is, and where the wealth is, they will be cared for," he told the London court during his 1997 trial for trading in stolen objects. Speaking last month, he told NEWSWEEK that the Egyptians are wrecking their heritage. "Egypt is the most dangerous place on earth for Egyptian antiquities," he said. "A piece taken out of Egypt is a piece that's saved."

British and Egyptian courts disagreed. "You have deliberately prostituted [your] talent for wholly selfish reasons," said Judge Timothy Pontius on sentencing Tokeley-Parry.

His offenses, the judge said, reflected "dishonesty on a large, elaborate and sophisticated scale." During the trial, Tokeley-Parry acted very much like a showman. The British press reported that he carried a copy of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" into the courtroom with him ("Nonsense," he says. "It was 'Tristram Shandy'," Laurence Sterne's 18th-century novel of manners). In the second of his two court cases, he tried to kill himself with hemlock, in the manner of Socrates. Now that he's out of jail, he's been working on his memoirs. When they're done, he says, he may return to an unfinished doctorate at University College London. The subject: ethics.