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Lebanon battles to get its treasures back

A marble bull’s head and a statue of a calf bearer, stolen in 1981, are due to return to Lebanon after a legal battle with private collectors in the United States.

The Temple of Eshmun is the best-preserved Phoenician site in Lebanon. Located close to the southern city of Sidon, the temple was dedicated to the Phoenician god of healing and renewal, one of the ancient culture’s most important deities. Hundreds of artifacts unearthed during excavations were looted by militias during the civil war and sold on the black market, disappearing without a trace. Almost four decades later, two of these objects, worth millions of dollars, are due to return to Lebanon.

Archaeologist Anne Marie Afeiche, the director of the National Museum of Beirut, told Al-Monitor that the two artifacts were unearthed during excavations at the Temple of Eshmun in 1967. One is a marble bull’s head measuring roughly a foot high and the other a marble statue of a calf bearer.

“They come from this very unique site and they represent a very special time frame, which is the end of the Phoenician period,” she said. “They are very characteristic of this period and they are made of marble. We do not have marble in Lebanon, so this marble was imported at the time — because it was so valuable — to build the Temple of Eshmun. They are dated to approximately 450 B.C.”

French archaeologist Maurice Dunand led the excavation of the site from 1963 until the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, unearthing hundreds of artifacts that helped shed light on the Phoenician period and the history of Sidon and Lebanon more broadly. The dig was supervised by Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities, and the objects were stored on-site for the duration of the excavation. They were later moved to a storeroom in Byblos, thought to be more secure.

“Unfortunately in 1981 these storerooms in Byblos were looted. All the objects — mainly the objects from the Eshmun excavation — were stolen,” Afeiche said.

The looters made off with more than 600 artifacts, which were sold on the black market. Investigators are still piecing together the trail that led to the discovery of the two artifacts in the hands of a private collector in the United States.

The bull’s head was initially flagged by curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In January, they alerted Sarkis Khoury, who heads the Directorate General of Antiquities, that they had been loaned a piece thought to have come from Lebanon. This prompted Lebanese Minister of Culture Ghattas Khoury to request that the museum seize the bull’s head and begin planning its repatriation.

The artifact had been purchased in good faith by Colorado-based collectors Lynda and William Beierwaltes for more than $1 million in 1996, according to The New York Times. They sold it to another private collector, Michael Steinhardt, who loaned it to the museum, but after learning about the dispute surrounding the artifact’s provenance he asked the Beierwaltes to refund his money. The couple subsequently sued the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the Lebanese government, but dropped their federal lawsuit in October after the Directorate General of Antiquities submitted proof of the artifact’s origins.

“We discovered the inventory and photo documenting the discovery dating to 1967, so we have the primary proof that this object was unearthed from Eshmun,” said Afeiche.

In an unexpected twist, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, a former US Marine who led an investigation into the looting of Iraq’s National Museum in 2003, discovered a profile of the Beierwaltes in a June 1998 edition of House & Garden magazine that included a photograph of the marble statue of the calf bearer. He claimed in a separate court filing that it had also been looted from Lebanon and a warrant for its seizure was issued Oct. 10.

The calf bearer had been purchased by the couple from the same dealer in 1996 for $4.5 million and was also sold to Steinhardt in 2015. Afeiche told Al-Monitor that the statue is also due to be repatriated to Lebanon after the owner relinquished his claim. Both artifacts will be placed in the possession of the Lebanese consul general in New York, Majdi Ramadan, who will arrange their repatriation, she said. On arrival, they will be put on display at the National Museum of Beirut.

They are not the first artifacts from Eshmun to be successfully repatriated. Eight artifacts were returned to Lebanon some years ago after they were discovered in Switzerland by archaeologist Rolf Stucky, who recognized the pieces thanks to a period spent working at the Temple of Eshmun and alerted Interpol. Four of the artifacts are currently on display at the National Museum.

The lawsuit over the two newly discovered artifacts highlights the importance of documenting excavations. The looting of the Eshmun artifacts from Byblos was the biggest recorded incident of antiquities looting during the Lebanese civil war, but Helen Sader, a professor of archaeology at the American University of Beirut, said that many more artifacts may have been looted from illegal excavations, making them impossible to trace.

“Most of the things that are on the antiquities market come from illegal, clandestine excavations,” she told Al-Monitor. Proving the provenance of items looted from illegal digs is almost impossible. “Every now and then something appears on the antiquities market. If it has been published and assigned a number it can be recognized,” she said. But most looted objects “have no provenance and no number and you never know where they came from, who found them and who sold them.”

Lebanon has suffered from antiquities looting for centuries but during the war it was particularly intensive. “There was no control, there was no police, no central authority, nothing. So for 15 years they looted like hell,” Sader said. “We don’t know how many sites were destroyed and looted because we have no records. … Look in the houses of many Lebanese people and you’ll see huge collections of artifacts coming from clandestine excavations. This is what happens in all countries during wartime.”

Most of the illegal artifacts seized in Lebanon in recent years have been smuggled from Syria and Iraq, according to Afeiche, who is often called on by customs agents to assess suspected archaeological treasures seized at the port, airport or borders. However, illegal excavations are still known to occur on Lebanese territory.

“We have the security forces and the police and Interpol, and we are trying to follow up on illegal excavations as much as possible and we do stop them very often,” Afeiche added. “The director himself, Sarkis Khoury, is following this on a weekly — if not daily — basis. Every time we hear something is happening anywhere in Lebanon we collaborate with the interior security forces and we send an archaeologist to check for looting or any illegal excavation.”

Studies have shown that antiquities trafficking is one of the most profitable illegal ventures in the world, second only to the trafficking of weapons and drugs. Exact figures are unknown, but it is estimated to be worth several billion dollars a year. “This is a very lucrative trade and they will not stop,” Sader noted. “If there is demand, there will be offers.”

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