In 2013, experts from the museum were called upon to help identify the item and immediately informed the UK tax authority, HMRC, of its historical importance and origins.
“Only a handful of these sculptural types are found in museum or private collections outside of Libya,” reads the press release, published Monday.
The rare statue dates from the 2nd century BC. Credit: Matt Dunham/AP
When discovered, the surface of the marble statue was fresh, suggesting it had only recently been dug up and exported from Libya, said the museum, further supporting theories that it was illegally excavated from the archeological cite of Cyrene during the civil war in 2011 or soon after.
The UK’s minister for culture, Caroline Dinenage, said in a statement on Monday that, thanks to efforts by HMRC and the British Museum, “we are able to return this important statue to Libya where it belongs.”
According to the museum this type of statue is relatively easy to identify as its manufacture was restricted to workshops in Cyrenaica, ancient Libya. Cyrenaica was settled by the Greeks in the 7th century BC.
Around 100 statues of this type have been found in the area, although only the heads survive in more than 50% of cases, said the museum.
Experts say this type of statue represents either the goddess Demeter or, more likely, her daughter Persephone. Some experts believe they have a funerary function because they were put on tombs, and their legless form meant they couldn’t escape and so were left to protect the body for eternity.
This particular example is rare in that it has both snake bracelets on its wrists and an offering in the shape of a small doll in its hand, said the museum.
The statue was seized at London Heathrow airport. Credit: Matt Dunham/AP
In 2015, a judge ruled that the statue was the property of the state of Libya, and it has been kept at the museum since then. It has now been given to officials at the Libyan Embassy in London.
“An important part of the museum’s work on cultural heritage involves our close partnership with law enforcement agencies concerned with illicit trafficking,” said Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, in a statement.
“This case is another good example of the benefits of all parties working together to combat looting and protect cultural heritage.”
In a separate joint press release with the British Museum, the Libyan Embassy in London thanked those involved in helping to return the artifact “to its original homeland of Libya.”
While this particular statue was never part of the British Museum collection, the institution is one of many throughout the Western world under pressure to return artifacts to their countries of origin.