Looters and vandals have for decades blighted Cyrene, a coastal city that was once a port of ancient Greece and is now a part of Libya. Two products of the pillaging, marble busts stolen from the city’s famed burial grounds and recently seized by investigators, were returned to Libya on Wednesday by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
The more significant of the two items, a mourning sculpture of a veiled woman’s head dating to 350 B.C.E., when the region was a Greek colony along the Mediterranean, had until February been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Valued at about $470,000, officials said it had been seized from the Met in February after having been there since 1998.
The Met declined to identify the donor, who had sought to remain anonymous. The authorities also declined to identify the lender because they said it could impede an ongoing investigation into antiquities looted from the Middle East and North Africa.
Though investigators said it was necessary to keep vague the recent history of the ancient bust, they said they had been able to pinpoint the tomb from which the item, “Veiled Head of a Lady,” had been taken — one located at the necropolis at Cyrene, near modern-day Shahat, Libya.
The area of Cyrene is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, one that suffered heavy pillaging in the 1980s and 1990s. UNESCO said that scientific work being done at the necropolis in the 1990s was halted amid unrest and government instability.
Many of the artifacts stolen from Cyrene have been statues and busts of women, veiled in a popular Hellenistic style. In December 2019, for example, the Department of Homeland Security seized a veiled female funerary statue from a Manhattan gallery that had listed it for sale online for more than $500,000. That same year, the department returned to Libya another bust of a veiled woman that had been seized from a Queens dealer in 2008.
Investigators said the bust seized from the Met had been smuggled out of Libya and into Egypt by Emile Saad who was sentenced in 2000 in Egypt for antiquities trafficking and has since died. They say it appeared on the international art market in 1997 showing “telltale signs of looting such as earth on the surface and new chips at the base and in the veil.” It was lent to the Met the following year
The second item returned to Libya on Wednesday, “Bearded Bust of a Man,” valued at about $30,000, had been circulating on the art market for decades and was seized this month, but investigators would not disclose from where.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg Jr. said in a statement that the artifacts are “windows into thousands of years of culture and deserve to be returned to their country of origin.”
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