Two Stolen Ancient Greek Statues that Were on View at the Met, Come Back From U.S. to Libya

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U.S. authorities have restituted this looted Hellenistic bust of a veiled woman (ca. 350 B.C.E.) to Libya. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

The Manhattan District Attorney has returned a pair of looted ancient Greek statues to Libya. It is known that one of them has been on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than two decades.

A Hellenistic bust of a veiled woman is one of the unknown artifacts stolen from the ancient port city of Cyrene. That was an ancient Greek colony near present-day Shahat in Libya. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said that these are more than just beautiful artifacts. They are windows into a millennial culture and deserve to be returned to their country of origin.

He also added that they would not allow New York City to become a hub for the antiquities trade and would continue to crack down on looting and smuggling around the world in coordination with law enforcement partners.

A Met spokesperson said the Met fully supported the Manhattan District Attorney’s investigation and the return of the facility to Libya. Both stolen works come from the city’s ancient burial grounds. The Necropolis of Cyrene is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has been looted for decades since the 1980s. After archaeologists and scientists stopped excavations there in 1999 due to unrest and political instability, it became vulnerable to vandals.

Authorities resituted Veiled Head of a Female (ca. 350 B.C.E.), valued at $1.2 million to Libya in January 2022. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

The Veiled Woman’s Head sculpture from the Met dates back to around 350 BC. e. and costs about $470,000. Before being confiscated in February, it was lent to the museum by an anonymous donor. The late Emil Saad, a collector found guilty of trading in antiquities in Egypt in 2000, allegedly smuggled the statue from Libya to Egypt.

When the work appeared on the international art market in 1997, it showed clear signs of looting. Namely, these were the earth on the surface and new chips in the base and in the veil. The Manhattan district attorney declined to name a creditor for the work, fearing it could harm ongoing investigations into looted Middle Eastern and North African antiquities.

Authorities did not say where the other artifact was found. Known as the “Bearded Bust of a Man”, it is said to be worth $30,000 and traded on the art market for decades before it was confiscated earlier this month.

In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has been working to return stolen antiquities to Libya. In 2019, law enforcement seized a veiled female headstone statue worth over $500,000 in a Manhattan gallery and returned to the country a similar work seized from a dealer in Queens in 2008.

The Manhattan District Attorney returned the Veiled Woman’s Head, another stolen marble antiquity from Cyrene, to Libya in January. The item, valued at $1.2 million and dated to 350 BC, was the first of 180 looted and stolen antiquities belonging to billionaire art collector Michael Steinhardt to be returned. The total value of these illegal assets is estimated at $70 million.

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