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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

ICE returns ancient marble sculpture of Roman Emperor to Algerian government

Antiquity was among nine stolen from an Algerian museum in 1996

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned an ancient marble sculpture of the head of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to Algerian Ambassador Amine Kherbi today in a ceremony here. The statue had been stolen along with eight others in the 1996 robbery of an Algerian museum in the seaside town of Skikda, Algeria. ICE seized it from Christie's auction house in New York, where it had been featured in a catalogue.

"It is always a pleasure to return cultural artifacts to the people of another nation, particularly when they are stolen from public museums or other cultural heritage institutions," said Marcy M. Forman, Director of the ICE Office of Investigations. "This item is not a souvenir to be sold to the highest bidder, but a priceless treasure that holds an important place in Algerian history. ICE will do everything in its power to help preserve and protect a nation's heritage by working to locate and recover stolen antiquities."

Dating from the second century, the three-foot-high, 200-pound marble sculpture depicts Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled during the period when what is now Algeria was part of the Roman Empire. The marble head emerged in the international market of cultural antiquities and was spotted by INTERPOL, which alerted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that an antiquity in an auction catalogue might be a stolen artifact. ICE experts worked with Algerian scholars to verify the statue's identity and then notified the U.S. auction house that the piece was subject to seizure. The seizure was not contested.

Such cultural artifacts illegally brought into the United States are subject to the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPI). The CCPI Act allows the United States to impose import restrictions on archaeological or ethnological material when pillage of these materials places a nation's cultural heritage in jeopardy.

The bust is the latest cultural property that ICE agents have seized and returned to its rightful country in recent years. Some other cases investigated by ICE include:

  • A 4,500-year-old alabaster offering vessel in the shape of a duck that had been excavated at the pyramid of Amenemhat III, the sixth ruler of Egypt's 12th dynasty was returned to Eqypt in August 2007. The vessel was designed to contain the roasted meat of a duck and was placed in the royal burial chambers to be used by the deceased in the after-life. The historic value of the antiquity is priceless; the sale price of the object was estimated at $20,000 to $30,000.
  • A pre-Columbian Mayan tenon, or architectural ornament, at least 1,200 years old was returned to the Guatemalan government in October 2007 after it was seized from a traveler by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at O'Hare International Airport. The 30-inch-high artifact has an estimated value of $20,000 and dates to between 200 and 800 A.D.
  • In the largest cultural repatriation to date, ICE returned 412 pre-Columbian artifacts to the Peruvian government in June 2007 following a joint investigation between ICE and the Broward County, Fla., Sheriff's Office. ICE agents and sheriff's officers discovered the artifacts during the execution of federal search warrants at various South Florida locations. The artifacts, which included ancient pottery, burial shrouds and gold jewelry, had been stolen from Peru and illegally smuggled into the United States.
  • An 18th century colonial painting, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which was stolen from a church in central Mexico, was returned to Mexican authorities in August 2006 after a two-year repatriation effort involving Mexico, the U.S. Department of Justice, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. During the plundering of a church in San Juan Tepemasalco, Hidalgo, in 2000, thieves slashed the artwork from its frame, leaving tattered pieces of canvas behind. The restored artwork was acquired by the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) later that year from a private art dealer for $45,000.

ICE's Office of International Affairs and Office of Investigation works to identify and return items of cultural and historical value to their countries of origin. ICE attaches in over 50 locations around the world work closely with their host governments, the State Department and U.S. Customs and Border protection to identify antiquities that are smuggled into the United States.