A 2,000-year-old statue of a Greek goddess looted in 2011 from Libya has finally been repatriated. Experts believe the sculpture is a likeness of Persephone, goddess queen of the underworld and wife of Hades. Carrying a small doll, possibly a votive offering, and flaunting snake-adorned wrists, the figure was deemed among “the rarest of Cyrenaican funerary statues” by the British Museum, which assisted in its return.
The marble was likely illegally excavated from the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in eastern Libya increasingly threatened by plunder and real estate speculation. When it was seized by UK customs at Heathrow airport in 2013, found in the hands of a dealer, officials enlisted the London museum’s specialists to help identify it.
In 2015, the museum and Libyan and British experts presented evidence backing the artifact’s origins, noting that its fresh surface is characteristic of marble that could have only been recently excavated. A UK court ruled that the statue belonged to Libya, and discussions with the nation’s embassy in London ensued to coordinate its return.
Although it dates from the 2nd century BCE, the funerary sculpture is in notably good shape. According to the museum, around 100 similar three-quarter-length statues have been discovered in Cyrene, but more than half survive as heads only.
Particularly unique, says British Museum curator Peter Higgs, is the figure’s impeccably conserved face, “considering many Greek statues have lost noses.”
In a statement, museum director Hartwig Fischer said the case was a “good example of the benefits of all parties working together to combat looting and protect cultural heritage.” The British Museum, however, has also been sharply criticized over its massive holdings of looted cultural artifacts, including the Benin Bronzes, royal and sacred artifacts looted by British troops from present-day Nigeria in 1897.