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Federal agents go on the hunt for stolen treasures

Vinita Nair was with the agency on a recent operation in Queens, N.Y., that recovered hundreds of items worth $8 million
Government agency recovers hundreds of priceless artifacts 02:57

NEW YORK - Art theft is nothing new. And it turns out, the U.S. government has a special unit that seeks out - and returns - stolen artwork.

A 2,000-year-old sarcophagus was found in a private collector's Virginia home. He said it was passed down from his father.

But the ancient coffin was actually stolen from Egypt, and sold on an international black market.

"By looking at the cracks and the cuts, it was probably cut up in many pieces and air shipped," said James Dinkins, former director of the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations division.

In doing so, the sellers risked ruining the sarcophagus, Dinkins said, "but to them it's just money."

HSI tracks down stolen antiquities smuggled into the United States and returns them to the rightful owners.

"It goes from everything from dinosaur fossils to looted art that the Nazis may have stolen during World War II," Dinkins said.

He said the majority of the buyers know that they're getting stolen items.

"These are usually businessmen, taking advantage of opportunities to sell them to wealthy businessmen," he said.

A CBS News crew was with HIS agents in March when they followed an informant's tip and searched a storage facility in the New York City borough of Queens. They found hundreds of items worth an estimated $8 million.

The items were allegedly stolen by Indian dealer Subhash Kapoor, a man international authorities say has been smuggling artifacts for decades. He is currently on trial after pleading not guilty to looting and smuggling charges.

Thieves steal treasures like these from temples in India and sell them on the black market. CBS News
How do the thieves get the artifacts in the first place?

"They'll hire folks to go out to a temple in India and literally chip away and take off decorative pieces from those temples," Dinkins said.

He pointed to one of the recovered items. "This is a real skull."

In the last seven years, HSI has returned more than 7,100 stolen items, such as fossils of a Tyrannosaurus given back to Mongolia, gold ornaments sent back to Afghanistan, and paintings that went back to Peru.

Dinkins says agents often volunteer to work with HSI because the department is unlike any other.

"In many of our cases that we investigate, you can't undo the crime that has happened. In this case, you are literally about to right a wrong, set the clock back and return that item back to rightful owner as if it never left," he said.

They're not only recovering priceless art; they're restoring stolen history.

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