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Published on 13 October 2011
News Issue 229, November 2011
The largely forgotten cache of thousands of antiquities was taken by thieves months after the city was seized by rebel forces
Interpol has alerted police forces to the theft of the so-called “Benghazi Treasure”, which was stolen from a bank vault in the city on 25 May. The theft of thousands of antiquities went unpublicised at the time, some three months after rebel forces had seized Benghazi from troops loyal to the late Muammar Gaddafi.
The looted treasure, which includes Greek and Roman gold, had been stored in two padlocked second world war military chests and a safe. It has never been displayed in Libya and its existence had been virtually forgotten, except by specialist archaeologists.
Francesco Bandarin, Unesco’s head of culture, working with Libyan archaeologists, is determined to hunt down the treasure; Interpol has alerted 188 national police forces. Information about the loss is scarce, but there is some new evidence, based on research by Italian archaeologist Serenella Ensoli, the Naples-based director of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Cyrene.
The antiquities had been deposited for safekeeping in the vaults of the National Commercial Bank in Omar al-Mukhtar Street, in the centre of Benghazi. The city was the main base of anti-Gaddafi rebels, who seized power there last February.
On 25 May, the two chests and the safe were apparently moved out of the vault, without proper authorisation, and sent to another bank building near the Hotel Dujal. Only one of the chests arrived, with the other chest and the safe going missing. To make matters worse, Ensoli suspects that the thieves went through the containers, looting the gold and silver and leaving the lesser material in the remaining chest, which went to the new location.
The Benghazi Treasure is the name given to a collection of the most important antiquities that were excavated in Cyrenaica after the first world war, when Italy occupied Libya following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
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.
In 1942, when Allied forces were approaching Libya, Italian archaeologists packed up the treasure. Early the following year, they sent it to Rome in the military chests. In May 1944, the chests were moved for safekeeping to the northern city of Cremona and later to Val Brenta, in the Dolomites. After the war, the Libyan finds were returned to Rome and were deposited at the Museo Coloniale.
It was not until 1961 that the collection was finally returned to Libya. A typescript inventory was then compiled, unfortunately without photographs. On its return, the treasure was lodged in a bank vault in Benghazi, and remained there after Gaddafi seized power eight years later. In 1980, further archaeological finds were added to the material deposited at the bank.
Earlier this year, after Libyan rebels established the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, Fadel Ali Mohammed was appointed chairman of the archaeology department. On 2 June, he wrote to the attorney-general, reporting the theft of the treasure. Fadel also wrote to the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, asking for assistance in documenting the treasure.
The main problem is that there are few surviving photographs of the thousands of objects, a situation Ensoli describes as “absolutely deplorable”. This will make it difficult to identify pieces should they ever appear on the market.
There have been reports that 500 coins and other antiquities from the Benghazi Treasure have turned up in Egypt, but these remain unconfirmed. It has also been suggested that the coins are being offered on the black market in Libya. The problem with individual coins is that without good photographs it will be difficult to prove their provenance, and to show that they were once part of the Benghazi Treasure. Unesco director-general Irina Bukova told a meeting in Paris that the loss represented “one of the largest thefts of archaeological material in history.” Unesco now hopes to send a mission to Tripoli and Benghazi to pursue inquiries.
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