UNESCO – In 2022, the Central Office for Combating Trafficking in Cultural Property (OCBC) launched a preliminary investigation into the seizure of a large, draped and fragmentary marble torso in France. This investigation, conducted under the authority of the Paris public prosecutor’s office (specialized section for combating organized crime), began following a report made by the Louvre Museum after an application for an export certificate. The museum then alerted the French Museums Department (Ministry of Culture), which in turn alerted the OCBC. The request came from a foreign gallery acting on behalf of a private client living in France. Following an in-depth study by the French Archaeological Mission in Libya, the bust was authenticated as originating from the necropolis of ancient Cyrene (or its immediate surroundings), a site that has been the target of looting for many years. The bust is therefore one of the categories of artefacts on the ICOM Red List of Libyan Heritage in Danger.
French investigations have brought to light a number of clues pointing to the illicit discovery of the sculpture. Faced with speculation that the sculpture had been looted, the gallery compensated its client and accepted the request for its return to the Libyan state, a decision validated by the magistrate in charge of the investigation. The bust seized by the OCBC was returned on October 12, 2023, during a ceremony held at the Libyan Embassy, which formalized the return of this cultural asset to its country of origin and highlighted the international cooperation between the two countries.
This case is exemplary in the way professionals from different sectors, including museums, the Ministry of Culture, the justice system, French law enforcement agencies, and the art market, worked together to identify the illegal status of the bust and secure its return. This case also highlights the importance of the ICOM Red Lists in preventing the purchase of objects illegally placed on the market by raising awareness on the most vulnerable categories of objects in a country or region. It is, therefore, a very useful tool in the exercise of due diligence by art market professionals. This case also highlights the important role played by actors in the art world, such as galleries, which can play a significant role in restituting an object to its rightful owner once its illicit provenance has been demonstrated.