American prosecutors and law enforcement officers have announced they are to return an ancient antiquity to Libya after investigators concluded that smugglers had stolen the marble artefact from its country of origin.
“It is with great pleasure that we are returning the Veiled Head of a Female back to the nation of Libya, from where it was looted during civil unrest,” Erik Rosenblatt, deputy special agent in charge at Homeland Security Investigations in New York, said in a statement.
“Though this antiquity has a monetary value of more than $1.2 million, it is the historical and sentimental value of the antiquities that renders it priceless to the people of Libya.”
A long investigation last month concluded that New York billionaire Michael H Steinhardt bought the antiquity in 2000. It came from a tomb in the ancient city of Cyrene, modern day Shahhat, in north-eastern Libya.
Founded in the seventh century BC, Cyrene was added to the World Heritage List in 1992. Since the downfall of the former regime of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, the region's priceless land witnessed illegal construction of housing blocs and looting incidents with artefacts smuggled and sold abroad.
Prosecutors have worked over the past five years with investigators from several countries including Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Turkey and Lebanon.
They said Mr Steinhardt – whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be $1.2 billion – has owned and traded more than 1,000 antiquities since 1987 and his art collection has been valued at about $200m.
His lawyers said he agreed to surrender 180 stolen antiquities valued at $70m. Mr Steinhardt, 81, from Brooklyn, has been banned for life from acquiring antiquities.
“I’m committed to ensuring transactions in the art industry are legal and those peddling in stolen or looted antiquities are shut down," Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said. "While the million-dollar price-tag on this relic is impressive, you can’t put a price on a country’s cultural heritage.
The Veiled Head of a Female is the first object of the looted collection from 11 countries to be repatriated.
The antiquities had been trafficked for years by 12 illicit networks and appeared on the international art market without legal paperwork.
New York state laws allow prosecutors to return stolen property such as antiquities to its rightful owners irrespective of when the theft took place.
The US is one of the first countries to sign and ratify the 1970 Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Unesco estimates the illegal trading in antiquities and cultural valuables rakes is worth about $10bn a year.