The United States has returned a silver rhyton in the shape of a griffin to Iran 10 years after it was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is a shocking development, to say the least. When I first wrote about the rhyton languishing forlorn in an ICE warehouse in Queens in 2010, the notion of repatriation was so remote as to seem impossible. ICE special agent in charge of cultural property James McAndrew put it bluntly: “This piece can’t go back.” Arranging for the return of looted artifacts is the kind of thing diplomats do, and the US and Iran haven’t had diplomatic relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
They still don’t, but there were some baby steps taken this week, including the first phone call between the two heads of state since 1979. On Thursday, September 26th, the US State Department took another step in the thawing of relations and returned the silver griffin rhyton. From the State Department’s announcement:
It is considered the premier griffin of antiquity, a gift of the Iranian people to the world, and the United States is pleased to return it to the people of Iran.
The return of the artifact reflects the strong respect the United States has for cultural heritage property — in this case cultural heritage property that was likely looted from Iran and is important to the patrimony of the Iranian people. It also reflects the strong respect the United States has for the Iranian people.
This was a relatively simple gesture to execute with a major payoff in goodwill. As soon as he landed in Tehran President Hassan Rouhani described the return of the rhyton to assembled reporters.
“The Americans contacted us on Thursday [and said that] we have a gift [for you]. They brought this chalice to the [Iranian] mission with due ceremony and said this is our gift to the Iranian nation,” Rouhani said.
He said that the historical artifact was very precious to the Iranian nation and added it should be safeguarded as it is “the symbol of the ancient civilization” of the country.
Iran is justifiably proud of its magnificent history, and this rhyton is an exceptional piece of it that was illegally exported from the country in a particularly painful episode of looting. The ceremonial libation vessel was made around 700 B.C. during the pre-Achaemenid period before the founding of the first Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C. It was stolen by looters from the Kalmakarra Cave, known as the Western Cave, halfway up a cliff in the western highlands of Iran sometime between 1989 and 1992.
The details are nebulous because looters aren’t really into site documentation, and archaeologists weren’t able to explore the find before the vultures descended. Hundreds of artifacts, anywhere from 230 to 500 objects from the 3rd millennium to the 7th century B.C., were found in the cave, a vast compendium of Iranian material history of the highest quality. Silver bowls, vases, dishes, silver human masks from the Akkadian Empire, furniture fittings, some gold ears (probably originally attached to wooden statues of deities) and at least 20 silver zoomorphic figurines and libation vessels in the shapes of ibexes, lions attacking bulls, sheep, goats and one very special imaginary animal: the griffin.
Looters devastated the site, destroying the archaeological context in their thirst for salable treasure and leaving many unanswered, possibly unanswerable, questions about the hoard and how it got there. One working theory is that this was part of the royal treasury of the last kings of Elam hidden from the Assyrians who sacked Susa, the capital of the independent Elamite kingdom, in 647 B.C. Another possibility is that these precious objects belonged to an important temple and were stashed in the cave by devotees to keep them out of Assyrian hands during the same period.
Iranian authorities have worked since 1989 on finding and seizing the stolen artifacts, and it has not been easy. Pieces of the Western Cave Treasure have been found in museums, collections, retail galleries and auction houses in the United States, France, England, Switzerland, Turkey and Japan. The recovered artifacts are now on display in several Iranian museums.
We don’t know what happened to the griffin rhyton for a decade after the discovery of the treasure. It surfaced for the first time in Geneva in March, 1999. It was shown to a private US collector there by antiquities dealer and accomplished loot pimp Hicham Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art. This prominent New York collector, who would later spill the whole story to the US Attorney, was very interested in the griffin, but refused to buy it without confirmation that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece.
In February of 2000, Hicham Aboutaam packed the rhyton into his suitcase and carried it to Newark International Airport by hand. He submitted a commercial invoice declaring it to be of Syrian origin to Customs, and then spent two years securing expert opinions to reassure the buyer that it was an authentic ancient Iranian piece, specifically one of the artifacts from the great Western Cave Treasure. Three experts weighed in on the artifact, a metallurgist in Los Angeles, a German expert and one in Maryland. The metallurgist confirmed the composition of the silver was in keeping with objects made in 7th century northwest Iran; the German expert straight-up called it as one of the silver pieces from the Cave; the Maryland expert noted the many features it has in common with artifacts in Japan’s Miho Museum reputed to be part of the Cave Treasure.
The last expert (Maryland) signed off on his appraisal in May of 2002. In June, the New York collector wired Hicham Aboutaam the last payment and bought the rhyton for a grand total of $950,000. The Feds got wind of this dirty sale and issued a seizure and arrest warrant for the griffin and Aboutaam in December of 2003. The collector threw Aboutaam under the bus and was not prosecuted. On June 14th, 2004, Aboutaam pleaded guilty to a pathetic single misdemeanor count of presenting a false import claim. The maximum sentence was a year in prison and a fine of $100,000. He was sentenced to pay a $5,000 fine. That’s it. This is why dealers keep selling goods they know to be looted. They literally have nothing to lose. Five grand is tip money to this … person who, let’s recall, made almost a million dollars from the sale.
Okay. Calming down. In with anger out with love. This is a happy day because the rhyton has been liberated from its sad warehouse limbo and been welcomed home where it will join its brethren from the Western Cave Treasure on public display in a museum.