When the French historian, archaeologist, and researcher Morgan Belzic, of the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris embarked on a PhD thesis on the somewhat esoteric subject of Cyrenaican Funerary Sculptures, little did he know he would end up becoming a detective.
However Belzic’s studies have led him to follow a murky trail of transnational artefact crime, that stretches from the oil-rich but war torn streets and towns of Libya, via shady intermediaries including opportunistic gangsters, enterprising jihadis, and freelance grave robbers, all the way to the glittering art galleries of Paris and New York.
With two rival governments, and countless local militias, Libya has spent much of the past five years—since Gaddafi was brought down by Western-backed rebels—in a state of utter chaos. A local ISIS franchise even controls a 120-mile stretch of the country and parts of Benghazi.
However, it is the modern day city of Shahat, about 150 miles from Benghazi via the coastal highway, and one of the first cities to fall under rebel control in the civil war, that has become the focal point in Belzic’s investigations.
Shahat is located on the site of the ancient settlement of Cyrene or Cyrenaica, believed to be the first Greek colony in Africa, and one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world. Cyrenaica is home to the largest cemetery, or “necropolis” outside of Greece.
“Necropolises are literally Cities of the Dead,” Belzic told The Daily Beast, “and rarely could a cemetery have been more well-named than the Necropolis of Cyrene, the metropolis of this region.”
For a thousand years, the Greeks buried their dead here, and it became, Belzic says, “the great necropolis of this region. The cemeteries were vaster than the urban centers themselves. There were an incredible number of tombs with streets, staircases, and facades.”
There had long been a steady trickle of artefacts of dubious origin filtering out of Cyrenaica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, often decorated with the famous silphium, a now-extinct ancient plant.
But Gaddafi’s government meted out fearsome punishments for unauthorized looting. So, stealing these items was a high-risk business for locals on the ground.
Not anymore, as Belzic discovered during his research on funerary divinities from Cyrenaica. The pillaging is now taking place on an industrial scale, with dozens of these relics of antiquity being brazenly offered for sale on the internet.
At an event in the British Academy in London last March, Belzic presented images of 40 Cyrenaican funerary sculptures that he was definitively able to say had been illegally taken from the necropolis and sold.
The number was shocking: “We only knew of less than 300 sculptures in total before,” he says.
Belzic has also found 100 pieces in marble being offered for sale that he believes come from the Necropolis, “Some are selling for $4000, others for $400,000 depending on the size and the place where they are sold,” he says. New York is the most lucrative market, and that is where the most highly priced items are to be found.
Belzic is now working with a team of international experts—such as the International Council of Museums (ICOM) which has drawn up a “red list” of the kinds of items buyers and sellers should be suspicious of, highlighting funerary sculptures and busts—to try to draw attention to the crisis affecting Libyan artefacts.
There have been some encouraging signs. A Cyrenaican funerary bust of the Greek goddess Persephone valued at £2 million was seized by British authorities in 2013 and handed to the British Museum, where it is now in storage pending a court’s decision over ownership. Pickaxe marks on the bust showed where it had been crudely dug up by looters.
A paper trail led from the sculpture to Hassan Fazeli, a Dubai businessman who was last year accused by New York prosecutors of illegally bringing five ancient Egyptian artefacts into the U.S.
Belzic reckons there are “at least 90 cases to make” but adds that many more pieces are likely “waiting discreetly in Switzerland or other quiet places, waiting a good opportunity to appear in five or 10 years, when the attention will be less.
“The merchants are doing anything they want because laws are protecting them. To prove that something is illegally exported or imported, we have to prove that the piece was in Libya before the 1970 convention. But these come from illegal excavations, so there’s no way we can prove that, because, by definition, they are not documented. And this is the case for all archaeological artefacts in the world.”
On a visit to the U.K. in September, the senior Libyan archaeologist Ramadan Shebani, the former archaeology curator at the Red Castle museum in Tripoli, told The Art Newspaper: “The trouble is that people just go and do random digging, hoping to find things. It is impossible to monitor that, because people can just dig under their houses or in the desert.”
Another expert archaeologist and the author of several books on Cirenaica, Olivia Menozzi, told The Daily Beast that while gangs connected to ISIS and al Qaeda are responsible for much of the looting, other work is being found as building is now proceeding unchecked in the wider area around the necropolis.
“A huge amount of sculptures are found during building works and then directly sent to the black market by the owner of the land or of the building, or the workers doing the building works, with everything passing through Egypt,” she says.
“Looking in general at the past two years, it seems to be plausible that there are at least 200 such sculptures for sale.”
For Belzic, the mission to stop the looters has become almost personal. “Funerary sculptures are the last trace of a person who lived centuries ago, and each one is a piece of a great puzzle to understand the creation of ideas on death and life during Greek and Roman Antiquity, to which both Western and Eastern Cultures are successors,” he says.
“Cyrenaica was a multi-cultural area with Greeks, Libyans, Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Italians: They built a multicultural society which can help in understanding ours.
“Each sculpture looted is a terrible loss, they immediately lose their context and their signification. It’s like a second death for the Ancients.
“The looters don’t mind that, and the buyers just want to have a nice decoration. A thousand years of history is being destroyed to put a marble that is ‘just right’ next to their sofa.”