Middle East

Iran artefacts returned after legal dispute

A collection of ancient Iranian artefacts have been returned to the country’s National Museum after a 40-year search and a longstanding legal dispute.

Dating back almost 3,000 years, 51 decorated glazed bricks were made by the Mannean kingdom between the 10th-7th century BCE, which was based in today’s north-western Iran.

Their discovery and repatriation “is a series of incredible adventures,” Youssef Hassanzadeh, an archaeologist with the museum, told AFP.

The bricks, which depict anthropomorphic animals such as lions, winged cows and other mythological figures, were first discovered after the 1979 Islamic Revolution by a farmer named Mirza Ali while cultivating his field. The bricks had been used to decorate a temple near his village in the West Azerbaijan province.

However in the initial chaos after the political upheaval, “people were looting and selling glazed bricks, taking advantage of the absence of government control,” explained Hassanzadeh.

READ: Ottoman-era historical artefacts seized in northern Turkiye

In 1985, during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, heavily protected archaeologists were dispatched to the site by the authorities, however by then the artefacts were looted and smuggled out of the country, and – like many other stolen Middle Eastern artefacts – found their way in to museums and private collections around the world.

According to Iran Heritage, the bricks ended up in a Swiss vault for decades and were owned by an Iranian family before they were seen in 1991 by John Curtis, a curator from the British Museum to acquire the collection.

Upon learning the origin of the bricks, Curtis is said to have advised the British Museum and other European museums not to purchase them and that they should be returned to Iran. However, the Iranian owner of the collection was not willing to do so.

The bricks remained in Switzerland for almost two decades until they were seized by Swiss police following Iranian diplomatic pressure.

“Under pressure from the Iranian diplomatic apparatus and the official complaint of the National Museum in 2015…finally on December 20, 2020, the collection returned to us,” said Jebrael Nokandeh, director of the National Museum.

READ: US returns 9 stolen artefacts to Jordan

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