Repatriated Iranian artefacts on display for first time in 40 years

Smuggled out of Iran almost four decades ago, a group of ancient bricks have now been recovered from a warehouse in Switzerland. The public can finally view the ornamental designs in an upcoming major exhibition in Boukan and Tehran.

Dating from around 700 BC, the 51 looted bricks were discovered in Qalaichi, one of the most important archaeological sites in western Iran. They depict a range of fantastical motifs, from winged lions and bulls with human heads, to mythological figures and geometric patterns.

Dr John Curtis, academic director of the Iran Heritage Foundation, said that prior to their discovery, “the richness of Mannaean civilisation and its links with Assyria had not been appreciated”. Scholars now believe the once overlooked artists of the ancient Mannaean civilisation were in fact highly skilled, drawing stylistic inspiration from their Assyrian neighbours.

The glazed bricks, most over one square foot in size, were first uncovered by a farmer in the 1970’s. Several extremely damaging and illegal excavations on the site ensued, during which bulldozers were used. An official rescue excavation that began in 1985 soon ground to a halt due to the Iran-Iraq war. Another official excavation started in 1999, but by then years of illegal digging had decimated the site and only fragments of brick remained.

It was not until 1991 when some of the plundered artefacts resurfaced in a warehouse in Chiasso, Switzerland, owned by an antiques dealer. The owner approached Dr Curtis at the British Museum with an offer of sale, but he promptly warned that the bricks might have been stolen. However, the owner ignored his advice.

By 2008, the owner had fallen behind on payments for the warehouse and the contents were seized and declared to Swiss authorities. A lawsuit was filed by the Iranian cultural heritage ministry and the Swiss ministry of foreign affairs to repatriate the artefacts.

In December 2020, the Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Minister Ali-Asghar Mounesan declared that the “collection of glazed bricks, which are attributed to Qalaichi [archaeological site] in Bukan, dating back to the 7th or 8th centuries BC, have been returned home from Switzerland.”

Heritage officials recently announced that an upcoming exhibition will showcase the long-lost bricks, entitled ‘The Repatriated Boukan Glazed Brick Collection from Switzerland’. It will tour between the Haghighi Museum in Boukan and the Iran National Museum in Tehran.

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