Diplomat tries to leave Iran with 6 tons of antiquties

Shapur II (309-79 A.D.) silver drachmHe actually had the gonads to describe them as “personal effects” in his customs declaration, banking on his diplomatic immunity to ship them out of the country without setting off alarms. Unfortunately for Argentinean embassy functionary Sebastian Zavalla, security noticed discrepancies between the declaration and the enormous shipment so they alerted customs officials.

Customs overrode diplomatic immunity and in front of an embassy representative, they opened the cargo. Inside they found ancient Persian gold and silver coins, battle shields, manuscripts, engraved stones and a whole bunch of other really random stuff.

Iranian officials have displayed the goods at a warehouse in Tehran to illustrate what they described as attempted “cultural plunder” by Zavalla, who worked as a counsellor at the Argentinian embassy. Among them are a hand-written Qur’an, a carved wooden door, and 19th century manuscripts belonging to Iran’s religious minorities.

The exhibition also includes animal skins, a stamp collection and – incongruously – portraits of Stalin, as well as a Vietnamese poster celebrating the fall of Saigon to communist forces in 1975.

Zavalla insists he bought all this stuff completely legitimately in Tehran’s Jomeh bazaar and other such retail outlets. He claims the Iranian items make up no more that 20% of the cargo. Of course, that’s not really much of a defense. Twenty percent of 6 tons is 1.6 tons of Iranian antiquities which is mind boggling, even for the most dedicated swap meet denizen.

Iranian customs spokesman Mohammad Behboud Ahani says they’ve invited experts to assess the monetary value of the would-be shipment, but of course he considers the market value insignificant compared to its historical value to Iran.

Zevalla left before his tons, so he’s back in Argentina now. Iran’s foreign ministry is up in arms, accusing Argentina of an “undignified diplomatic act” but the undignified diplomat is out of their reach now. They’ll have to be content with┬áhis shady collection and imprecations, I suspect.


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Comment by Philip Coggan
2009-11-22 01:11:00

It might (if it’s possible) be worth following up what the Argentinian foreign ministry does with their klepto dipo – sack him, or promote him and send him off on another mission.

I once had the honour to serve in my own country’s embassy in Burma. When I arrived the Burmese foreign ministry was holding 14 shipping crates of effects from the Counsellor of the Malaysian embassy. The Malaysians were refusing permission for the crates to be inspected, and the Burmese were refusing to clear them. They were still there when I left two years later.

On my previous posting, in Bangladesh, the big thing was ‘blackstone’ – not the mercenaries, but Hindu/Buddhist sculptures from the Pala and Sena periods. The US staff club had a lovely collection. It seems someone at the US embassy had been buying them and shipping them back to home, where his partner was selling them. The ambassador eventually put a stop to it, and the final shipment ended up in the clubhouse.

Comment by livius drusus
2009-11-22 10:53:11

That just blows my mind. Clearly diplomatic immunity is a cover for many ills, which I’m pretty sure is not what it was created to do. It saddens me that the US ambassador didn’t give the sculptures back instead of just keeping them for the staff club.

Thank you for your sharing your experience. I’ll definitely try to find out if there are any consequences for the Argentinean diplomat.

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