Looted Libyan artefacts seized in Europe

Archaeologists have reported that antiquities illegally excavated in Libya are turning up for sale in the showrooms of London, Paris and Bern.

According to a senior Libyan archaeologist, the country is struggling to control a spate of ‘random digging’ at ancient sites including the Greek and Roman city of Cyrene. Ramadan Shebani told The Art Newspaper that looters are exploiting the political vacuum created by the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 to engage in illegal excavations. 

At least eight artefacts from illicit digs offered for sale in Europe have been seized. These include three marble statues seized by authorities in Bern. Others are being advertised and sold online.

The trade in illicit antiquities is said to be fuelled by rebuilding efforts in the war-torn country, which is facing a housing crisis. “People just go and do random digging, hoping to find things. It is impossible to monitor that, because people can just dig under their houses or in the desert”, Shebani explained. Experts predict the trade will only increase if the war ends because Libyans may attempt to sell stolen objects they have kept hidden.

Efforts to stem the flow of antiquities “gushing” out of Libya are also said to have been undermined by the archaeologists themselves. While experts on the ground are working with local authorities to attempt to control the illegal digs, US art historian and archaeologist, Susan Kane says they have been plagued by the same “local tribal politics” tearing the country apart:

There are currently three governments in Libya… and there is no collaboration between them. There are two chairmen of antiquities, one in Tripoli and one in Benghazi, and neither one is talking to the other”, she explained.

There are also concerns that the threat to Libyan cultural property is being overshadowed by a focus on Syrian heritage sites such as the Temple of Bel and the Baal Shamin temple in Palmyra. UNESCO placed all five World Heritage sites of Libya on the List of World Heritage in Danger in July this year but Libyan archaeologists complain that the organisation’s assistance efforts on the ground have been inadequate.

For now, further seizures of stolen objects are anticipated in Europe as the International Council of Museums suspects that the ‘looting to order’ of funerary busts from Cyrene is currently taking place.

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