British Museum turned into temporary court

Judge considers allegations of illegal trading of looted Libyan statue
Joseph Lee
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A room in the British Museum in London was turned into a temporary court this week, to take evidence about the alleged illegal trading of an ancient Libyan statue valued at £1.5m.

HM Revenue and Customs (HRMC) alleged that the marble bust of a woman was brought into Heathrow airport in 2011 using false documents that claimed it came from Turkey and was worth only US$110,000.

The hearing at the British Museum on Monday and Tuesday allowed the judge to examine the 258kg statue and hear evidence from experts about its provenance and when it had been excavated. The case has now been adjourned until 1 September.
 
Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard last Friday that the statue was discovered and seized in November 2013 as part of an investigation into the activities of Hassan Fazeli, a trader from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates who has also been connected to the illegal shipping of antiquities from war-torn Iraq to Britain and the US.
 
Andrew Bird, representing HMRC in its application for the forfeiture of the statue, said that experts believed the life-sized marble bust originated in Cyrene, an ancient Greek colony in Libya that is a Unesco World Heritage Site, where it was used to mark a grave.
 
Peter Higgs, a curator in the department of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum, described the 4th century figure of a woman with a snake bracelet as “unique” in evidence. Only one similar statue is known, at the Louvre in Paris, but this example also features a second, smaller figure.
 
“It’s an exceptionally rare statue of exceptionally high quality,” Higgs said in a statement to court.
 
The application for forfeiture was being opposed by Riad Al Qassas, a Jordanian who claimed following the statue’s seizure that it had in fact been owned by his family since 1977. Ben Watson, representing Al Qassas, said that he had entrusted the statue to Fazeli in order to sell it in London.
 
If the statue is forfeit, it becomes the property of the Crown, which will hold it at the British Museum for safekeeping until a parallel criminal case is concluded. It will then be repatriated to Libya, the court heard.

This is believed to be the first time that a court has convened at the British Museum.

Update: 01/04/2015

The article was updated after the case was adjourned until 1 September. 



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