Court examines Libyan sculpture at British Museum


A court convened at the British Museum on Monday for the first time to enable a judge to inspect a £2million sculpture looted from Libya.

Court examines Libyan sculpture at British Museum
The marble statue is said to have been illegally dug up in Cyrene 
[Credit: National News]

The “unique” four foot marble statue is said to have been illegally dug up in Cyrene, a UNESCO world heritage site, before being smuggled to the UK in 2011, via Dubai.

It was uncovered in a west London warehouse by customs officials two years later and handed to the British Museum pending a court’s decision over ownership.

District Judge John Zani, who is overseeing the case at Westminster Magistrates Court, was given a detailed analysis of the sculpture during a two hour viewing at the museum.

Accompanied by barristers, solicitors and his legal adviser, the judge carefully examined the statue as he was told stains and other evidence demonstrated that it was “definitely” excavated illegally from the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene.

The statue, which depicts a Greek woman wearing a hood and flowing gown, is said to be unparalleled besides a single comparable example in the Louvre. The woman wears two snake-like bracelets and carries a doll.

It hails from the third centuries BC, when it served as a grave marker.

Authorities in Tripoli have already launched a bid to repatriate the work of art.

A British Museum spokesperson said that as far as they were aware it was the first time a court had convened on the premises.

Jordanian, Riad Al Qassas, who does not reside in the UK, is accused of falsifying paperwork after telling customs that the sculpture came from Turkey, rather than Libya, and was worth £60,000, rather than between £1.5m to £2m.

He denies one count of knowingly or recklessly delivering a false document to HMRC on November 1 last year.

Dr Peter Higgs, curator of Greek sculpture at the British Museum, told District Judge Zani the statue looked “fresh” and had been excavated “fairly recently”.

Highlighting earth stains and marks from vegetation, he pointed to “small pickaxe” marks as the judge circled the statue, studying it closely in a tiny store-room.

A video of the viewing was later played in court.

Dr Higgs said: “The statue is a three-quarter length figure. It is a funerary statue that I believe comes from the region of Cyrenaica, in Libya, which was a Greek colony.

“The statue is thought to represent either Persephone, the goddess of the underworld…or it is meant to be someone who is dedicated to the goddess. I believe it is very unlikely to come from Turkey.”

Dr Higgs said the statue was one of a kind, adding that it was in “the top ten” of its class.

“I believe that the statue was definitely made in Libya, in Cyrenaica,” he added.

“I believe, as I said, it is one of the best examples of its type and is extremely rare.”

Andrew Bird, for HMRC, has told the court that documents suggest Al Qassas had only a marginal role in the export.

He claimed Hassan Fazeli, a Dubai businessman who has claimed the sculpture has belonged to his family collection since 1977, was behind the crime.

Mr Bird said the false documents were submitted by Hassan Fazeli Trading Company LLC, which is based in Dubai, and which was last year accused by New York prosecutors of illegally bringing five ancient Egypt artefacts into the USA.

Ben Watson, representing Al Qassas, indicated his client would be happy to hand over the sculpture to Libya if it was shown to originate from there.

Libya has been plagued by looting and cultural vandalism since the fall of Colonel Gadaffi in 2011, with the resulting power vacuum effectively ending the state-sponsored preservation of Libya’s multiple Greek and Roman sites.

The expansion of Islamic State fanatics into North Africa has stoked fears that unique sites will be destroyed, mirroring shocking images from the IS-controlled city of Mosul in Iraq.

A British Museum spokesperson said that as far as they were aware it was the first time a court had convened on its premises.

Author: Victoria Ward | Source: The Telegraph [March 31, 2015]