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Thuggish looting of Libyan antiquities

November 1, 2011

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but as we’ve seen in Iraq, Egypt  and now Libya antiquities and other cultural artifacts are near the top.  As compellingly recounted by Matthew Bogdanos in Thieves of Baghdad, in 2003 Iraq’s national museum was looted of some of the world’s greatest archaeological treasures.  Earlier this year as the Mubarak regime teetered, Cairo’s national museum narrowly, though not completely, avoided a similar fate. Now comes word via The Art Newspaper that Interpol has alerted police forces about the theft of the so-called Benghazi Treasure, apparently stolen on May 25. Benghazi was headquarters for the insurgency that overthrew the Qaddafi dictatorship.

The inventory that exists for the Treasure’s thousands of artifacts is, unfortunately, largely absent photographs.  This sickening thuggery and thievery, on the heels of so much death and destruction, should not be tolerated by Libya’s Transitional National Council.  There is much for Libya’s interim leadership to address, what with the world’s oil companies banging on their doors, but they should fully cooperate in gaining the return of their cultural patrimony.

Among the missing treasures, clockwise from top: an embossed thin gold plate depicting a battle, golden and wrought silver foils with human heads in profile, and a figure of Nikai

Here are some details, with the complete story at The Art Newspaper:

The finest items were found in 1917 at the Temple of Artemis in Cyrene, the largest Greek site in Africa, which is east of Beng­hazi. Dating from the fifth and sixth centuries BC, the gold included earrings, embossed heads and a plaque depicting a battle.

Other material came from the Hellenistic Palace of Columns in Ptolemais (between Cyrene and Benghazi), which was excavated from 1937. A third element is the Meliu collection of 2,000 coins.

The Benghazi Trea­s­ure comprises 364 gold coins, 2,433 silver coins, 4,484 bronze coins, 306 pieces of jewellery and 43 other antiquities, including stat­ues. The story of its 20th-century history is only now emerging.

Nov. 2, 2011 UPDATE: additional reporting from the BBC.

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