LOS ANGELES – The government has filed an asset forfeiture complaint against an ancient mosaic depicting Hercules that likely was looted from war-torn Syria, allegedly illegally imported into the United States, and seized at a home in Palmdale, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Friday.
The mosaic, which is roughly 18 feet long and weighs a ton, was seized by FBI and Homeland Security Investigations agents in March 2016 as part of an investigation into the “smuggling (of) looted items believed to be from a foreign conflict area into the United States,” according to the complaint, which was filed Wednesday in Los Angeles federal court.
The complaint alleges that Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi smuggled the 2,000- year-old antiquity into the United States with false and fraudulent documents with the intent to avoid import duties and further violated federal law by concealing the mosaic at his residence.
Reached by telephone, Alcharihi said he had nothing to say until he sees the complaint.
After the mosaic was seized, an expert retained by the government concluded that the artwork “was an authentic mosaic from the Byzantine Period depicting Roman mythology, and was consistent with the iconography of mosaics found in Syria, in particular in and around the city of Idlib, Syria,” according to the complaint.
Prosecutors allege that the mosaic was imported into the United States with paperwork indicating that it was part of a shipment of vases and mosaics worth only about $2,200, but Alcharihi allegedly later admitted paying $12,000 for the items.
Preliminary estimated values for the mosaic at issue in this case are much higher, according to the complaint, which explains that the United States has adopted import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material from Syria.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection stated that for decades, the government “has shared the international concern for the need to protect endangered cultural property. The appearance in the United States of stolen or illegally exported artifacts from other countries where there has been pillage has, on occasion, strained our foreign and cultural relations,” according to the document.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in the complaint that the FBI has been investigating Alcharihi for the past three years in connection with the smuggling of looted items.