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US accused of repatriating fake Roman mosaics to Lebanon

November 20, 2023 at 3:52 pm

The Beirut National Museum, Lebanon [Getty]

Leading British and French academics have accused US authorities of sending back fake Roman mosaics to Lebanon, according to a report yesterday by the Guardian.

One academic, Djamila Fellague of the University of Grenoble claimed that eight out of nine mosaic panels that authorities in New York repatriated to the country were forgeries.

It is alleged that forgers copied designs from original artefacts in archaeological sites or museums across Sicily, Tunisia, Algeria and Turkiye.

“Eight of the nine ‘returned’ mosaic panels were fakes that [are] relatively easy to detect because the models used are famous mosaics,” said Fellague. One particular panel depicting an Anguiped Giant, is based on a section of the famous mosaics in the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fellague said.

The report notes that of the other mosaics returned to Lebanon, there is only one example for which the forgers were inspired by an actual mosaic from Lebanon (a well-known depiction of Bacchus in the National Museum in Beirut).

READ: Looted from Turkiye, US authorities seize Marcus Aurelius statue in Ohio Museum

Christos Tsirogiannis, a guest lecturer at the University of Cambridge and a leading expert in looted antiquities and trafficking networks, believes the evidence is irrefutable. He further stated that if the allegations are proven true, it would be extremely embarrassing for the office of the Manhattan district attorney (DA), which had announced the repatriation of antiquities to Lebanon on 7 September.

“Even if you are not an expert, if you put the fake next to the authentic mosaic, you see how similar they are, but also how the quality is actually not that good,” Tsirogiannis explained.

Its press release released by the DA at the time, nine mosaics included in the repatriation ceremony were among dozens of Middle Eastern and North African antiquities that were allegedly brought into New York by a Lebanese antiquities trafficker, Georges Lotfi. The DA had also announced that 16 stolen antiquities had been returned to Egypt, valued at over $4 million.

At the time of the announcement, Lebanon’s Consul General in New York and the Northeastern US, Ambassador Abir Taha Audi, condemned the looting as “cultural terrorism”, stating although “it may not spill blood, it ruthlessly extinguishes the spirit of a people and their nation.”

She added that those who “steal their nation’s treasures are, essentially, robbing the land’s history, memory, and civilisation,” describing the crime as “a deplorable act and a cultural crime of the gravest magnitude.”

READ: Syria unearths ‘rarest’ ancient Roman-era mosaic near Homs