2,000-year-old Iranian carving seized at British airport in smuggling attempt

The treasure, a large fragment from a Sasanian rock relief, looked similar to this example of Sasanian art seen in in Naqsh-e-Rustam, Iran. (Wikimedia Commons/Hara1603)
The treasure, a large fragment from a Sasanian rock relief, looked similar to this example of Sasanian art seen in in Naqsh-e-Rustam, Iran. (Wikimedia Commons/Hara1603)
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Updated 01 April 2023
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2,000-year-old Iranian carving seized at British airport in smuggling attempt

2,000-year-old Iranian carving seized at British airport in smuggling attempt
  • UK Border Force officers spotted the item and became “suspicious” when they noticed it was wrapped in a “haphazard” way
  • After gaining permission from the Iranian government, the British Museum said the piece would go on display for three months

LONDON: An attempt to smuggle a 2,000-year-old Iranian carving into the UK was thwarted recently when the item was seized by authorities at a British airport.

The treasure, a large fragment from a Sasanian rock relief, depicts a male figure and appears to have been gouged from a cliff face in Iran with an angle grinder, experts said.

According to an Observer report, the carving is estimated to be worth more than £30 million ($37 million).

UK Border Force officers spotted the item and became “suspicious” when they noticed it was wrapped in a “haphazard” way, the report said.

Those found guilty in Iran of trafficking antiquities face a possible death sentence and people have been executed for the crime in recent decades.

“We almost never come across a case of something being cut out of the ‘living rock.’ That’s a level of brutalism that surpasses anything,” St. John Simpson, a senior curator and archaeologist in the British Museum’s department of the Middle East, said.

“You’ve even got felt-tip marks on the back before they’ve used an angle grinder to slice diagonally behind it and across the top. It was then packed in an incredibly bad manner, in a small, almost unpadded crate held together with nails.

“If it had been a state-of the-art handling crate, that would have attracted a different sort of attention because it requires all sorts of paperwork,” he said.

Simpson, who said the piece has been restored by museum staff, identified it as Sasanian, an empire that existed between A.D. 224 and A.D. 651.

“It belongs to a period when Iran was the center of a powerful empire stretching from Syria to the Caucasus and Central Asia, and with its capital at Ctesiphon, south of present-day Baghdad,” he said.

“The Sasanians were powerful rivals of Rome, and famous today for their fine silverwares and cut glass.”

Simpson said the carving would be “incredibly valuable” on the black market.

“It looks amazing; it is stunningly attractive. The valuation could be anything, really. We’re talking £20 million to £30 million-plus. There’s never been anything like it on the market.”

After gaining permission from the Iranian government, the British Museum said the piece would go on display for three months before being returned to Iran, where it will be shown at the National Museum in Tehran.

Seyed Mahdi Hosseini Matin, Iran’s charge d’affaires in London, said: “We sincerely hope that further expansion of cooperation between the British Museum and the Iranian Embassy in London will continue to be effective in fighting against illicit trafficking of cultural properties and protect the cultural heritage of mankind.”