Decorated glazed bricks, nearly 3,000 years old, are on display at Iran’s National Museum after a four-decade search interrupted by war and an international legal battle.
Lions and winged cows with human heads, horses and bulls with a goat’s horn, kneeling men and women and other mythological figures decorate the work, created by the Manaeans who lived in the northwest of Iran in the first millennium BC.
The 51 square bricks are painted with an enamel coating on a black, brown, light blue, yellow or white background.
Their discovery and repatriation “is a series of incredible adventures,” Youssef Hassanzadeh, an archaeologist at the museum, told AFP.
It is also the latest example of countries in the Middle East and Africa recovering stolen antiquities that ended up in Western countries.
According to Hassanzadeh, the story began after the 1979 Islamic revolution when a farmer, Mirza Ali, discovered painted ceramic bricks while cultivating his field. They had been used to decorate a temple near his village in West Azerbaijan province.
“People were looting and selling glazed bricks, taking advantage of the lack of government control,” said Hassanzadeh, who curated the exhibit at the museum, where visitors view the bricks through display cases.
– ‘A unique collection’
A few years later, in 1985, during the war with Iraq, the Iranian authorities sent a group of archaeologists, protected by soldiers, to the village. They started digging and grabbed a few bricks, but it was too late for the others.
Smugglers had already shipped some overseas, where a number entered private collections and museums, the archaeologist said.
The story took a new turn when the British Museum learned that an Iranian family had offered to sell a set of glazed bricks in Chiasso, on the Italian-Swiss border. In 1991, the museum sent its curator John Curtis to purchase the collection.
But Curtis realized that the bricks were from the West Azerbaijan site “and advised the British Museum and other European museums not to buy it, as it is a unique collection which should not be divided and should be sent back to his country of origin,” Hassanzadeh said. .
The Iranian owner of the collection had a different view. He was not ready to send the artifacts back from Switzerland.
“In 2008, Swiss police seized the objects. The case was taken to court. French archaeologist Remy Boucharlat, who led excavations in Iran, confirmed the ‘identity’ of the collection,” said the Tehran-based museum said in a statement.
Legal proceedings dragged on for more than a decade, with a lawsuit filed by the National Museum in 2015 and pressure from Iranian diplomats.
“Finally on December 20, 2020, the collection came back to us,” said Jebrael Nokandeh, curator of the National Museum who is exhibiting the bricks until Tuesday.
A separate long legal saga ended in October 2019 when the National Museum opened an exhibit of approximately 300 cuneiform clay tablets returned from the United States.
Other artifacts also returned, but with much less hassle.
Nokandeh, who is also an archaeologist, said a descendant of a Frenchman who lived in Iran during World War II approached Iran’s cultural adviser in Paris last year to say “he had a collection of Iranian antiquities”.
These 29 pieces, from the Bronze Age to the Islamic period, are now also on display at the museum, as the quest to recover other stolen and lost artifacts from the country’s rich history continues.
“We are in talks with the United States as well as Australia to return items,” Nokandeh said.