Assembly of class I major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules involves the interaction of two distinct polypeptides (the heavy and light chains) with peptide antigen. Cell lines synthesizing both chains but expressing low levels of MHC class I molecules on their surface as a result of a failure in assembly and transport have been identified. We now report that although the apparent steady-state distribution in these cells of class I molecules is in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), the molecules in fact are recycled between the ER and Golgi, rather than retained in the ER. This explains the failure of class I molecules to negotiate the secretory pathway. Class I molecules do not seem to be modified by Golgi enzymes, suggesting that the proteins do not reach the Golgi apparatus during recycling. But morphological and subcellular fractionation evidence indicates that they pass through the cis Golgi or a Golgi-associated organelle, which we postulate to be the recycling organelle. This compartment, which we call the 'cis-Golgi network', would thereby be a sorting organelle that selects proteins for return to the ER.