Archeo-diplomacy: A Genuine or a Fake Effort?

10/17/2013 10:35 am ET | Updated Dec 07, 2013

As a sign of a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, a supposed 2,700-year-old silver object, thought to have been looted from a cave in Iran, was repatriated to the Iranian chief of Cultural Heritage Organization, Mr. Najafi a progressive reform politician who accompanied the Iranian president in his recent trip to New York City, where he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly.

The artifact is a hollow silver vessel, formed from several joined units to create a winged, open-mouthed griffin, walking on clawed feet. Three large upright funnels are attached to its body, two at the sides, the third inserted into the awkwardly raised and enlarged aperture of the creature's anus. Multiple factors including the presence of binding rivets in the legs, the crude style and techniques used to manufacture this object has lead a group of archaeologists who are trusted experts of this specific time period in the Iranian history to identify this object a modern artifact and a forgery. One of the experts, Dr. Oscar White Muscarella, a former research fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of art in a scholarly article published in 2012 says: "

For stylistic and technical reasons-- the griffin's head is frozen mute, its eyes stare, the head, wing and leg patterns are awkward and meaningless, and the leg rivets are modern: all attributes unlike any ancient conception -- I condemned it as a forgery."

The griffin first surfaced in Geneva, Switzerland in 1999, when it was shown to "a prominent New York art collector" and a member of the board of trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who was informed that it derived from Iran. In February 2000 the griffin was imported into the United States by its Geneva vendors, Hicham and Ali Aboutaam, a prominent family of antiquity dealers. On "a fraudulent commercial invoice" to United States Customs, they declared that the griffin was derived from Syria.

According to Dr. Muscarella, who has documented the turbulent 10-year history of the existence of this artifact, more than two years later, in 2002, the New York-based billionaire art collector purchased the item for $950,000.00. After doubts were raised about the authenticity of the artifact and going back and forth between the denial and approval of different "authenticators," in December 2003, the Department of Customs/Homeland Security arrested Hicham Aboutaam in New York City and confiscated the griffin, on the charge that he had filed a false claim by stating that the vessel derived from Syria -- when they knew it came from Iran. Aboutaam pleaded guilty in June 2004, and, for his lie to the United States government, was sentenced to "one year's probation and a petty criminal fine of $5,000.00. The billionaire collector was refunded her money.

No doubt that this repatriation act was done on a basis of good will and as a token of friendship. Mr. Najafi, who officially received the artifact stated that: "We are taking this as America's souvenir to the Iranian people."

Apart from the fact that a souvenir from abroad has a special place of warmth in the Persia culture, inquiring about the value of a gift is also considered especially rude in the culture.

Iran's national museum as the new home of the griffin has formed a committee of the top experts to discuss the provenience and authenticity of the object. No official statement from the National Museum has been released to date, but one of these experts who preferred to stay anonymous told me that the object is so crudely made that most possibly is a fake.

Not issuing an official statement that reveals the inauthenticity of the object by the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization is not an indication of unawareness about this issue, but possibly apart from political considerations is also a consequence of the deep-rooted tradition of courtesy and gift receiving etiquettes in the Iranian culture.

Although this was a gesture based on good will and as the State Department has declared: "the strong respect the United States has for cultural heritage property and the patrimony of the Iranian people," the real and convincing respect of the United States for the people of Iran will only be demonstrated through the immediate lifting of the unjust sanctions that are affecting the daily lives of millions of innocent people. Correspondingly showing respect to the Iranian people would require parts of the U.S. government to ask the difficult question of why they have chosen to side with the warmongering lobbies and stigmatize Iran. It is time for them to abandon the idea of Iran as another pantomime villain and face the fact that Iran is an independent nation with legitimate interests.

After all, is it truly only a coincidence that many non-controversial cultural properties that are purchased by wealthy collectors end up in private and public exhibitions in major museums? The vicious cycle of plundering and looting cultural property, and the antiquity dealers acting as middlemen in this cycle only exist because the wealthy plunder-sponsors exist, whom their great majority unfortunately act as prominent museum trustees. United States as one of the 123 signatories of the 1970 UNESCO convention for fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural properties, remains one of the major antique dealing hubs in the world. The lack of some international source of law binding the antiquity-market nations, have caused major difficulties for the countries with rich cultural heritage to combat the illicit traffic of their cultural property.