Political disorder and unemployment are forcing Egyptians to take dangerous, brutal work robbing ancient tombs. Their bosses make bank selling the loot to Americans online.

© Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

GIZA, Egypt—Every morning the “repatriation team” at Egypt’s ministry of antiquities starts the grueling task of going through eBay’s listings to look for stolen ancient artifacts. But it’s like trying to fight back the tide. An archeological catastrophe is taking shape, fueled by the political unrest since the January 2011 revolution, the dire economy, and the relative ease with which tomb-robbers sell their booty on the Web.

Ali Ahmed Ali, head of the repatriation effort, points to a picture on his computer screen of a large limestone block from a tomb, inscribed with hieroglyphics, that was on sale on eBay for $13,500. The seller is in America and has offered no documentation proving that the 1,300-year-old object is owned legitimately.

For an archaeologist or historian the piece could provide “key evidence,” says Ali. “The inscription will identify the period and site of the tomb.” But once it disappears into the cyber marketplace that information is no longer available. “Now it’s lost,” says Ali in despair. He copies and pastes the listing into an ever-expanding dossier of suspected loot.

The items that have recently sold online range from pre-dynastic 4,000 B.C. pottery from Luxor to 2,700-year-old wooden Mummy masks from the Nile Delta. Prices start at around $1,000 for Greek-Roman coins (250 A.D.) and top $25,000 for ornate Sarcophagus lids. The sellers come from all over the world.