France has officially returned around 35,000 artefacts to Morocco, after seizing an entire collection of rare antiquities during three customs checks, reflecting the growing phenomenon of looting cultural heritage items.
On Thursday, the pieces were delivered to Morocco during a handover ceremony held at the Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean in Marseille. However, the artefacts, which weighed about three tonnes, will not actually enter Morocco until the end of the month, reported Sky News.
Guy Jean-Baptiste, the regional director of customs in Marseille, said on the sidelines of the handover ceremony that the customs inspections which took place in 2005 and 2006 were carried out in the cities of Marseille and Perpignan. The drivers of the vehicles transporting the pieces were all Moroccan nationals, who drove luxury cars containing the artefacts that were properly cleaned and restored.
It took Morocco 15 years to recover the pieces, pending the implementation of all procedures, especially the judicial formalities. The fines imposed on the involved dealers reached 120,000 euros, according to Agence France-Press (AFP).
The seized collection was remarkable in terms of the sizes and types of pieces, some being geological and others prehistoric, according to Xavier Delestre, curator-general of the Archaeology Department of the Regional Directorate for Cultural Affairs of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.
Among the seized artefacts, the authorities found a partially preserved crocodile skull, fossils, fish, reptile teeth and carved plates, some of which date back to the Neolithic period.
Director of Cultural Heritage in Morocco Youssef Khiara expressed that the recovery of this significant part of Moroccan heritage marks “a historic moment”.
He added that the events of 2005 led to developing a new approach to training customs agents and judges in order to provide the necessary human resources to confront this phenomenon.
According to Delestre, stealing heritage artefacts has become a global phenomenon: “Which has grown in recent years due to the ongoing conflicts in the Mediterranean. Illegal sales of antiquities have increased dramatically, with the help of social media platforms.”
Trafficking in cultural goods may as well be a “potential source of funding for terrorist organisations”, Baptiste indicated.