The Embassy of Libya, the British Museum and HMRC collaborate to return a rare, ancient funerary statue

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The Embassy of Libya, the British Museum and HMRC collaborate to return a rare, ancient funerary statue
The statue has now been transferred to the Libyan Embassy.

LONDON.- The British Museum and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have collaborated with the Embassy of Libya to assist in the return of a rare and striking 2nd century BC funerary statue from Cyrene. The statue was seized by Border Force officials at Heathrow airport several years ago having been illicitly imported into the United Kingdom to be offered for sale. In 2013 specialists at the British Museum were asked to assist in the identification of the statue. Museum staff instantly alerted HMRC to the importance of the statue noting that only a handful of these sculptural types are found in museum or private collections outside of Libya. The fresh surface of the statue was characteristic of marble that had only been out of the soil for a few years. This suggested that the statue had only recently been illegally excavated and exported from its country of origin, possibly following the upheavals of 2011. The Museum gave evidence for the prosecution in a court case in 2015, and the judge ruled that the sculpture was owned by “the state of Libya”. Since the court case the statue has been stored at the British Museum for safekeeping whilst HMRC have worked alongside the Libyan Embassy to return the statue to Libya.

The statue has now been transferred to the Libyan Embassy.

Caroline Dinenage, UK Minister for Culture, said, "The UK is a world leader in the protection of cultural heritage both at home and abroad, and our work in tackling the illicit trade of artefacts is a key part of this. Thanks to the combined efforts of HMRC and the British Museum, we are able to return this important statue to Libya where it belongs."

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum said, “The British Museum is committed to the fight against illicit trade and damage to cultural heritage. I am delighted that we are able to assist in the return of this important object to Libya, via the Embassy in London. An important part of the Museum’s work on cultural heritage involves our close partnership with law enforcement agencies concerned with illicit trafficking. This case is another good example of the benefits of all parties working together to combat looting and protect cultural heritage.”

The British Museum has close ties with colleagues in Libyan Museums, hosting four Libyan specialists in the Museum and other UK Partnership institutions as part of the International Training Programme in 2012 and 2013. We also have a strong relationship with the Society for Libyan Studies here in the UK who were also closely involved with the case concerning the statue.

The Sculpture and Cyrenaica:

The striking 2nd century BC funerary statue is of a limited type restricted to workshops in Cyrenaica, ancient Libya meaning it has been easier to identify. Cyrenaica was a region settled by Greek colonists in the 7th century BC, and continued to be a major economic, artistic and political power in the Mediterranean until the end of the Roman period. Statues of this type, carved as three-quarter length figures terminating at the level of the hips are a phenomenon seen only in a few regions of the Mediterranean, but most come from Cyrenaican cemeteries: the style of this statue places it firmly in a Cyrenaican workshop and context.

At Cyrene about a hundred relatively complete or fragmentary statues of this type have been discovered, although over half of this total survive as heads only. They are well known in the field of Greek sculpture and have been widely published. Most of them have remained in museums in Libya. There are several on display in a gallery in Cyrene Museum and some in Tripoli’s National Museum.

This type of statue is thought to represent either the goddess Demeter or more likely her daughter Persephone. It has been thought that the statues show the goddess emerging from the underworld where, according to Greek mythology, she had to spend a third of her year with the god Hades. Other scholars believe that these statues suit a funerary function because they were fixed to tombs and their lack of legs meant that they could never escape from and so eternally protected the body buried in the tomb beneath.

A few of the statues hold items as offerings in their hands, this particular example is unique in having a figure of a small doll in her hand, probably intended as a clay figurine, a typical tomb offering. Some of the statues have snake bracelets carved onto their wrists: snakes were also symbols of the underworld and the afterlife. This particular statue, having both snake bracelets and an offering in its hand makes it one of the rarest of the Cyrenaican funerary statues.

This type of statue had two main functions. Some were designed to be inserted into a small plinth with an inscription of the deceased, which would then be placed over a large stone tomb, others were intended to sit in niches built into rock cut tombs. Many were found in situ or on the ground beneath where they were originally set up.

Illicit Trade

The British Museum works in partnership with law enforcement agencies, government departments, Arts Council England, auction houses, dealers and private collectors in the event of any enquiries over illicit trafficking or export licensing of antiquities. When objects may be repatriated to their country of origin, the British Museum offers expert advice on how to do this in the most appropriate manner. Since 2009 we have helped to repatriate over 2300 antiquities, to Afghanistan, to Uzbekistan, and to Iraq. The present case is one in a long line of successes involving many agencies and individuals, and again illustrates the value and importance of these long-term relationships.

The following lists some of these successful cases:

• February 2009: 1500 illicitly trafficked antiquities sent to Kabul

• July 2012: a collection of Begram Ivories stolen from the National Museum in the 1990s sent to Kabul

• July 2012: a large Gandharan sculpture stolen from the National Museum in the 1990s sent to Kabul

• July 2012: 821 illicitly trafficked antiquities sent to Kabul

• May 2016: inscribed Safavid bowl stolen from the National Museum in the 1990s sent to Kabul

• July 2017: large inscribed glazed tile stolen from Chashma-i Ayub in Vabkent in about 2014 sent to Tashkent

• August 2018: inscribed cones of Gudea stolen from Tello in 2003 sent to Baghdad

• October 2018: Bronze Age silver flask sent to Kabul

• March 2019: Mesopotamian kudurru probably stolen from Nippur in 2003 sent to Baghdad

• August 2019: 156 Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets looted from southern Iraq sent to Baghdad

• May 2020: two metal trunks of fake tablets and figurines seized by Border Force at Heathrow are publicised

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