History | September 29, 2017 5:00 am

An Ancient Bull’s Head Statue Sparked a Global Legal Battle

The head is 2,400 years old and crisscrossed borders for years.

In 1981, a 2,400-year-old statue of a bull’s head was stolen from a castle on the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon by an armed militia. Then it just disappeared. But now, it’s re-emerged at the center of a legal battle.

According to U.S. prosecutors and reported by The Wall Street Journalthe bull’s head crisscrossed borders and then finally ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Lebanon wants it back.

The Manhattan’s district attorney seized the object from the Met in July. The attorney filled out an application with the New York Supreme Court to get the bull’s head transferred back to the Lebanese government. But Lynda and William Beierwaltes have sued the Manhattan prosecutors, saying they have a clear title of the object. They also dispute that it was stolen.

But the district attorney’s investigation into the statue’s journey shows that it was plundered during the Lebanon civil war and imported into the U.S. during an “international criminal conspiracy,” writes The Wall Street Journal. 

“This is one of the most remarkable cases I’ve worked on given the object’s incredible journey and the cast of characters,” said Leila Amineddoleh, a cultural heritage law expert who advised Manhattan prosecutors on this case, to The Wall Street Journal. 

She also said that even though it happened years ago, it is still relevant today.

William G. Pearlstein, a lawyer for the family told The Wall Street Journal that the Beierwaltese are bona fide purchases. By contrast, Lebanon failed to take any action domestically or internationally to report the theft of the bull’s head.

The Wall Street Journal tried to fully trace the steps of the bull’s head. The piece was excavated by a French archaeologist from the Temple of Eshmun near the Lebanese city of Sidon. It was transferred to the Byblos Citadel, a 12th-century castle, for safekeeping during the civil war. But an armed Christian militia arrived at the Citadel and took many objects, including the head, and it wasn’t seen for 15 years.

It was found in a shipping crate in New York, bound for Robin Symes’s, a British antiques dealer. Symes sold the bull’s head for $1.2 million to the Beierwalteses. In 2006, the couple contacted dealers Hicham and Ali Aboutaam with a request to sell a collection of their antiques. The brothers asked the Art Loss Register to search for the bull’s head on its database of stolen art, but that search came up blank.

From there, it bounced around even more, finally ending up at the Met. The Lebanese government was not informed of the re-emergence of the piece for two years. When the Met finally did contact Lebanon, it triggered a request from the Lebanese government to the U.S. to assist in returning the head.