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April 4, 2022

The sometimes slow and sometimes fast return of historical artefacts pillaged from Libya

Cyrene, Northern Necropolis.
The Sculptured Tomb/Cassels from Pacho 1827

Parallel with the start of the First Libyan Civil War, the Security Directorate of Shahat, in the eastern coastal region of Libya, implemented a series of works in an attempt to address the looting and destruction of moveable and immovable heritage from the tangle of ruins known as the seventh century BCE  city of Cyrene.  Faced with rising civil unrest, the outbreak of wars, and unchecked and destructive urban encroachment, Ismail Dakhil, an official at the museums department of eastern Libya, estimated that as much as 30 percent of the ancient city may have been encroached upon due to urban expansion.

Despite Libyan archaeologists, officials, and academics doing all they can to protect and maintain their country’s heritage, often with only very limited resources, and sometimes at great personal risk, the extent of recent destruction of the rock-cut tombs and ancient structures at Cyrene is vividly illustrated in this July 2013 photograph.  The heartbreaking image clearly shows an operator's Hyundai Robex 250 LC-7 crawler excavator clearing land for development inside a stretch of the city's ancient necropolis. 

There, in abject disregard for the ancient burial vaults and sarcophagi below the treads of the construction vehicle, makeshift developers rashly transformed a swath of the archaeological site into a modern construction zone.  Before they could be stopped, these individuals crushed, destroyed, or dumped into waterways what Greek, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Cyrenaica remains they came across, some of which dated as far back as 600 BCE.

Along with urban encroachment, insufficient security and a complicated political terrain has made Libya's rich archaeological heritage a vulnerable target for looting.  During the last two decades, according to the research of prominent forensic archaeologists, many of the territory's majestic Hellenistic sculptures have been plundered, only to turn up for sale on the ancient art market with little or fabricated provenance.  Many of the most beautiful of these pieces have turned up with, or have been sold through well known gallerists in London, Paris, Switzerland, Barcelona, and the United States. 

To illustrate the seriousness of the problem, the remainder of this article will be dedicated to four artefacts that have just gone home, identified in four separate US investigations of varying lengths and complexities.  Each of these artefacts made the long journey back home to Libya last week, and each were seized and relinquished as the price sometimes paid for trading in illicit material, and in one case, from wantonly collecting material with an absolute and total disregard for an object's legitimacy. 

Artefact #1

Cyrene Deity Head - Belzic Dt.54 *

The first, and oldest, is a fourth-to-third-century BCE Head of a Veiled Woman, (Cyrene Deity Head - Belzic Dt.54) which was recovered as part of an 11-year Federal investigation code named “Operation Lost Treasure,” led by HSI-ICE in New York, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This 13 inch tall by 10 inches wide marble head was seized by US authorities while monitoring the shipments and way bills of a known problematic Sharjah-based antiquities dealer.  The artefact was being shipped to a sometimes collector, sometimes dealer operating in New York.  Unfortunately, this was not the only plundered artefact from Cyrene the UAE dealer knowingly handled, nor was America the only country where buyers for Libya's plundered material could easily be found.  

Freshly looted, this severed head of a divinity had been shipped out of Libya and made her way into the United States unwashed by her handlers.  As a specimen of the wonders of Cyrenaica's past, her expressive face still retains some of the underdrawing pigment used by her creator to outline and define her eyes.   

Officers involved in the U.S. investigation would go on to provide assistance to London investigators when this same dealer, continuing to ply his illegal trade in the lucrative London market, shipped yet another plundered funerary statue from Cyrene to the United Kingdom just three years after this New York seizure.  In the US case, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) International Operations Division Chief Leo Lin formally handed over this sculpture to the safekeeping of the Libyan Embassy in Washington DC,  where it has remained until its journey home was finalised last week. 

Artefact #2

Cyrene Deity- Steinhardt-Albertson Dt.76*

The second artefact, the Veiled Head of a Female, as named in the Michael Steinhardt Agreement, was formally surrendered by the New York collector in early December 2021.  It is thought to be the head of a 2.5 meter tall 3rd - 2nd century BCE funerary monument representing a half-figure goddess.  One of just ten known to archaeologists from the Necropolis of Cyrene, before its plunder, this strikingly rare sculpture once adorned one of only six or seven monumental tombs located in the ancient city.   

The sculpture had been seized during the lengthy investigation into the highly questionable collecting practices of billionaire Michael Steinhardt, begun in New York in February 2017.  Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's team, lead by Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit and Senior Trial Counsel Matthew Bogdanos, along with Supervising Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer and Investigative Analysts Alyssa Thiel and Daniel Healey gathered evidence which demonstrated that the Veiled Head of a Female first surfaced on the international art market on 20 November 2000 when Michael Steinhardt purchased Dt.76 from Michael L. Ward, a dealer in New York with three business entities: 
  • Michael Ward & Co.
  • Michael Ward Inc.,
  • Ward & Company Works of Art LLC.
On his invoice, Ward noted the Veiled Head of a Female was “possibly from North Africa” and “a light brown earthy deposit uniformly covering the head imparts to its surfaces an attractive, warm patina.” This “earthy deposit” is thought by some experts to have been applied after the object was looted as it serves to lessen the noticeability of small chips and breakage on the surface of the artefact, a likely sign of rough handling by its looters.  

The ancient sculpture was sold to Steinhardt with no prior provenance for $1,200,000. 

Discussing the seized sculpture with Morgan Belzic, a PhD researcher at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études specialising in Cyrenaican Funerary Sculptures, under the direction of François Queyrel, he concurred with my preliminary observation that this head of a deity, with its telltale coloration and diadem, had to originate from Cyrene.  Belzic has made a name for himself, having noted a correlation between the increasing destruction of funerary monuments in Libya and the uptick in the appearance of ancient pieces from Cyrene on the market statistically out of range with those appearing in the market prior to the country's destabilisation.

As an expert on the sculptural remains of Libya's Greek cities, Belzic cooperates with national and international law enforcement authorities, including the Manhattan DA's office and the Libyan Department of Antiquities and has identified plundered and suspect objects originating from the Libyan cities of Shahat (Cyrene), Susa (Apollonia), Tocra (Taucheira), Tulmaytha (Ptolemais), and Benghazi (Euesperides/Berenike).  

Working closely with a multinational coalition of archaeological missions in Libya under the coordination of the French Archaeological Mission, lead by Vincent Michel, this group of allied researchers has provided critical evidence in law enforcement investigations identifying sculptures of high concern originating from Cyrenaica. 

The Manhattan District Attorney's office concluded its multi-year, multi-national criminal investigation into Steinhardt's ancient art collection in 2021.  In total, their work resulted in the seizure and forfeiture of 180 plundered antiquities valuing an estimated total of $70 million and imposing the first-of-its-kind lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities ever handed down to a collector. But this investigation is important for the history books not only for that reason but also because the case underscores and exemplifies the successes prosecutors can have when a) focusing almost exclusively on art and antiquities cases, b) working collaboratively with other law enforcement agencies and c) exercising the willingness to work with a group of forensic researchers who specialise in looted and stolen antiquities from specific regions or cultures. 

Handover Ceremony in Manhattan

Through the collaborative work of the DA's team, with the coordinated help of Special Agents Robert Mancene, Robert Fromkin, and John Labatt of Homeland Security Investigations, in this one case alone, the DA's office successfully identified 169 of the 180 seized antiquities as having been trafficked by a total of 12 different criminal smuggling networks.  The remaining eleven forfeited antiquities, including this one, first appeared on the international art market in the hands of dealers more concerned with the artefact's sales value than with closely examining the provenance of objects that come from countries plagued by civil unrest, war, and/or rampant looting. 

Artefact #3
Cyrene Deity Head - Belzic Dt.22*

While the exact dates of when the 3rd to 2nd century BCE, Belzic Dt.22, was looted from Cyrene is unknown, it is believed that this sculpture may have been stolen in the 1980s and then smuggled into Egypt by antiquities traffickers.  Investigators in New York have proven that it was eventually shipped onward to the United States, where it appeared on the US ancient art market in 1997.  According to investigators, the artefact demonstrated the “telltale signs of looting such as earth on the surface and new chips at the base and in the veil.”

By 1998, and now referred to as the Veiled Head of a Lady, and head had been valued at nearly half a million dollars and was placed on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by an anonymous donor, where it was catalogued simply as a Greek Hellenistic funerary head and mislabelled as being from the 4th century BCE. 

The veiled head remained on display at the Met for more than twenty years.  After being identified as having come from Cyrene, the sculpture was seized during an investigation conducted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's team, lead by Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit and Senior Trial Counsel Matthew Bogdanos, along with Supervising Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer and Investigative Analysts Alyssa Thiel and Daniel Healey in February 2022.  Note that the Met and DANY have declined to identify the lender at this time, given the sensitivity of ongoing investigations.

Prior to its formal transfer back home to Libya, the Veiled Head of a Female was handed over to the Libyan authorities on 30 March 2022 along with Artefact 4 during a repatriation ceremony attended by the Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of Libya in DC Khaled Daief, and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) Acting Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge Mike Alfonso.

Artefact #4

Cyrene Portrait Head - Belzic P.97*

After being smuggled from Libya to Geneva, Switzerland, Morgan Belzic first identified this 2nd century CE marble Cyrenaican Funerary portrait of a bearded man on the ancient art market in November 2018.  When documented, it was being offered for an estimated sales price of $19,000.  

Originally placed in a tomb rich with small niches, there are more than 250 Cyrene portraits of this category recorded by scholars studying the ancient remains of Libya.  The iconographic styling of this type of portrait head is so unique to Cyrenaican funerary imagery that this category of sculpture is referred to in scientific literature as a ‘Romano-Libyan’ portrait. 

The marble head of a man was next offered for sale two years later, in June of 2020, this time in Manhattan and with an asking price of $25,000 - $35,000.  But it is the third sale which turns out to be the charm, resulting in the fastest seizure to restitution of an artefact in history.  

Belzic P-97 was spotted for the third time on 28 March 2022, this time by art historian Camille Blancher, just shy of its next intended sale date through another USA antiquities dealer.  Through the responsive and collaborative efforts of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's antiquities unit, working in close coordination with Special Agents Robert Mancene and Robert Fromkin of Homeland Security Investigations the bearded head of a man was seized on Tuesday, March 29th, back in the Manhattan DA's office where it was handed over to the Libyan authorities on Wednesday, March 30th, along with Artefact 3 during a repatriation ceremony attended by the Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of Libya in DC Khaled Daief, and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) Acting Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge Mike Alfonso.

Support for this case came from members of a coalition of archaeological missions working in Libya under the coordination of the French Archaeological Mission as well as from ARCA, all of whom are deeply committed in assisting Libyan institutions and authorities in enforcing the protection of cultural heritage in Libya and who voiced their collective concerns to the DANY regarding the artefact's potential sale. 

To put a nice bow on this story, all four marble funerary sculptures, along with a small grouping of terracotta urns and fragments, were flown via private jet, paid for by a philanthropist, to Mitiga International Airport in Libya.  Arriving to Tripoli on Thursday, April 1st, the repatriation of these antiquities is a “peace dividend” as described by Director-General of the United Nations Regional Institute for Crime and Justice Research (UNICRI) Antonia Marie de Meo, who led a delegation to Libya alongside James Shaw, Chief of that agency's Asset Recovery and Illicit Financial Flows programme.  Also on board was forensic archaeologist Morgan Belzic, who more than anyone, truly understood the efforts, coordination and cooperation, these four recoveries required. 

The handover ceremony took place at the Museum of Libya inside the former royal palace of Qasr al-Khild in Tripoli. Like other museums in Libya, it has remained closed to the public since the 2011 Libyan uprising.  Speeches at the event included statements made by Omar Kati, Deputy Minister for International Cooperation and Organizations Affairs, Libyan government antiquities chief Muhammad Faraj al-Falous, the envoy for Libya in the United States, representatives from the Libyan Ministry of the Interior and LARMO. Many of whom present for the celebration expressed gratitude for the efforts made by the US law enforcement and public prosecutors in bringing Libya's heritage home. 

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland personally thanked the staff at the Manhattan DA's office and HSI- ICE.  

The spectacular ruins of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene have, for better or worse, survived Libya's 2011 revolution.  Looking at these beautiful artefacts and admiring the Met recovered piece in particular, I feel compelled to admire the learned skill that฀went into the creation of this veiled woman. For all our modern capabilities, I doubt we could turn such solid stone into the modesty of a semi transparent fold of material in quite the way that this unknown ancient Cyrene artisan did.  

Filled฀with admiration, but also a healthy does of cynicism, I understand that Libya's loses don't stop with the return of one woman behind one transparent veil to the place she was formed.  The rape of historic Cyrene for profit has and likely will continue, and there are other veiled faces of other victims still out there.  

Some of the forensic archaeologists involved in this fight were already back at work on Saturday, prepared to help law enforcement authorities in any way they can to bring Libya's sculptures back to a country that has already lost so much. 

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA CEO



In July 2016 UNESCO placed all five of Libya's World Heritage sites on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list.  Equally concerned, and in response to a long history of threats, the United States and Libya signed its 17th cultural property agreement with Libya on 23 February 2018 to solidify the two countries' joint collaboration in combatting the looting and trafficking of cultural objects originating from the plagued North African country.  

Signed by Irwin Stephen Goldstein for the United States and by Lutfi Almughrabi, Libyan Under Secretary for Political Affairs, this agreement formalised a collaboration to protect Libya heritage for a period of five (5) years. And while this agreement was opposed by many in the antiquities trade, the restitutions discussed in this article demonstrate repeatedly that poverty, civil unrest and war create the perfect storm for the trafficking of illicit antiquities.

* Image Credit French Archaeological Mission to Libya