Restored Iranian carving seized by UK border patrol to go on display at British Museum

Sculpture worth £30m was seized while being smuggled and will be returned to Iran after being displayed at the museum

The Sasanian rock relief sculpture, which was seized by UK border patrol officers, will be displayed at the British Museum before being returned to Iran. Reuters
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A fragment of an ancient Iranian sculpture, which could be valued at more than £30m, has been seized by UK border patrol officers.

The Sasanian rock relief, which is more than a metre tall and was carved about 1,800 years ago, had been gouged from a cliff in Iran with an angle grinder before being smuggled to Britain.

It was intercepted by Border Force officers at Stansted airport after they became suspicious of the haphazard packaging.

The relief, which depicts a male figure carved in the 3rd century AD, was apparently intended for the black market.

The sculpture is so unique and valuable that it will never be sold, despite its potential value.

It is carved from calcareous limestone, which is common across Iran, making it impossible to pinpoint its exact location.

Only about 30 known Sasanian rock reliefs exist, mostly dating back to the third century, and almost all are in a relatively small area of Iran, in Fars province.

The lack of an inscription makes it impossible to identify the person depicted, but the figure's dress and diademed headdress signify him as a person of high rank.

The gesture of greeting and submission with a raised bent forefinger is a feature of Sasanian art when figures are in the presence of royalty, which suggests that this was part of a larger composition.

The artefact was part of Operation Pandora VI, which involved actions in airports and at border crossing points and was led by Spain.

The case has been investigated by Interpol and the National Crime Agency, but no arrests have been made so far. The sender, recipient and destination of the package was a UK internet auction site, which claimed it was not expecting it.

The British Museum, which repaired the broken sculpture after it was formally forfeited to the Crown, has received permission from the Iranian government to display the artefact for three months before sending it to the National Museum in Tehran.

Dr St John Simpson, a senior curator and archaeologist in the British Museum’s department of the Middle East, said that looters were undeterred by severe penalties for trafficking antiquities, including the death penalty in Iran.

Despite this, the number of Iranian artefacts on the black market has increased in recent years, he added.

Updated: April 01, 2023, 6:06 PM