Antiquities looted during Lebanese Civil War returned


One of two Roman marble torsos looted from Lebanon in 1981, and now repatriated through the Art Loss Register and New York law enforcement

Two antiquities looted during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s have been returned to Lebanon and will be displayed at the National Museum in Beirut.

The marble sculptures were originally excavated from the Temple of Eshmun at the site of Sidon in 1972, but following the outbreak of the civil war a few years later, were moved along with many others to storage facilities in Byblos. In July 1981, however, the Byblos warehouse was raided and many archaeological artefacts stolen.

Fortunately, the sculptures were recorded by the Swiss archaeologist Prof. Dr. Rolf A. Stucky in a 1993 publication, and  were subsequently registered with the Art Loss Register (ALR), the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art and antiquities.

The first piece, which even appears on the front cover of Stucky’s book, was identified when an antiquities dealer in Freiburg, Germany was acquiring it from an Austrian dealer. The German dealer submitted a search to the ALR which allowed them to identify the issue. He then asked the ALR to make arrangements for its safe return to its country of origin, which the ALR has now secured.

The second piece was identified when a dealer in London contacted the ALR prior to its potential acquisition and the ALR identified that it was looted material. At that point, the piece was with a collector in New York, and given that the ALR had no contact with the holder himself, it contacted the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in New York City to pursue things directly and notified the Lebanese authorities. The New York County District Attorney’s Office then seized the piece to ensured its return to Lebanon.

The second Roman marble torso, recovered in New York

James Ratcliffe, Director of Recoveries and General Counsel at the Art Loss Register, says: “It is fantastic to see further pieces returned to the National Museum in Beirut. We identified one before, in 2006, and it is now very satisfying to have located a further two and secured their return both through our own efforts and with the assistance of Matthew Bogdanos at the New York County District Attorney’s Office, and the team in Lebanon. It is important to recognise how vital cooperation such as that between ourselves and the authorities in New York is to this work and we are very grateful for their assistance. Without it we would all struggle to achieve what we can do together. For that reason, it is also essential to note how helpful the team at the National Museum in Beirut have been in ensuring that the necessary information to pursue a restitution is available. Similarly, the work of NGOs such as Biladi to introduce those who work in this kind of field to each other, should not be underestimated.”

“In principle there is nothing wrong with a trade in antiquities where items have lawfully entered the market, but trading in pieces that are looted is entirely wrong and must stop. Through due diligence checks with the Art Loss Register, for instance, it is possible for those in the trade to identify when they are being offered looted material and for it then to be returned.“

Today’s ceremony at the National Museum in Beirut should also give hope to those now experiencing looting of their national heritage. “It can, and will, be recovered in future. For those currently suffering this is not the moment to lose heart. Through cases such as these today it can be seen that if records can be kept, restitution will happen,” adds Ratcliffe.