Illegally excavated statue returned to Libya - Museums Association

Illegally excavated statue returned to Libya

Museums help identify and return rare funerary statue in long-running repatriation case
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Rebecca Atkinson

A rare 2,000-year-old marble statue has been returned to Libya after being seized by Boarder Force officials at Heathrow airport as an illegal import.

The statue, believed to be depict the Greek goddess Demeter or her daughter Persephone, has been the subject of a long-running repatriation case involving the British Museum and museums in Libya.

In 2013, staff at the London museum were asked to help identify the object and alerted HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) as only a handful of these sculptural types are found in museums or private collections outside of Libya.

It realised that the fresh surface of the statue was characteristic of marble that had only been out of the soil for a few years – suggesting that it could had been illegally excavated and exported from its country of origin, possibly following the upheavals of 2011.

The museum gave evidence for the prosecution at a subsequent court case in 2015, and the judge ruled that the sculpture was owned by “the state of Libya”. The statue has been stored at the British Museum since then but has now been transferred to the Libyan Embassy.


“The British Museum is absolutely committed to the fight against illicit trade and damage to cultural heritage,” said the British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer.

“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 statue is a three-quarter length figure ending at the hips, a style largely produced by workshops in Cyrenaica, a region of ancient Libya settled by Greek colonists in the 7th century BC.

Most statues of this type have remained in museums in Libya, with several on display in Cyrene Museum and some in Tripoli’s National Museum.

This statue has snake bracelets and an offering in its hand, which the British Museum says makes it one of the rarest of the Cyrenaican funerary statues.

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