US prosecutor returns sculptures to Lebanon

NEW YORK: Three ancient sculptures are being returned to their rightful owners in Lebanon as the Manhattan district attorney forms a new antiquities trafficking unit whose goal is to repatriate stolen pieces from around the world.

At a news conference in his office on Friday, District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. stood by the more than 2,000-year-old treasures that were recently owned by private collectors and valued at more than $5 million (Dh18.35 million).

They were excavated from the Temple of Eshmun, 40 kilometres south of Beirut, stolen during the Lebanese civil war that started in 1975 and confiscated in New York in the past few months, Vance said.

A marble torso from about the 4th century BC, sold by an antiquities dealer, was seized in November. Another marble torso from the 6th century BC was recovered in October. And a bull’s head from about 360BC was recovered from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was on loan from a collector.

They’re the latest looted artefacts to be returned from New York, considered the US hub of antiquity sales that are fuelled by the city’s concentration of wealth.

Matthew Bogdanos, who leads the District Attorney’s new antiquities trafficking unit, said ancient works found in war-torn lands easily end up in the hands of dealers who are “less than scrupulous” in determining their origins.

Majdi Ramadan, the Lebanese consul general in New York, said the Manhattan prosecutor’s efforts “will mark the end of a long trail of theft and illicit trading.”

Vance said that since 2012, his office has recovered several thousand trafficked antiquities collectively valued at more than $150 million. Members of the new trafficking unit are working with foreign governments as well as investigators from the Department of Homeland Security.

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