US to forfeit smuggled Syrian mosaic

The US government wants to forfeit an ancient mosaic believed to be looted from war-torn Syria.
The US government wants to forfeit an ancient mosaic believed to be looted from war-torn Syria.

The US government has filed an asset forfeiture complaint involving an ancient mosaic believed to have been looted from war-torn Syria and illegally imported into the United States, where authorities say it was seized from a California man.

The US attorney's office in Los Angeles says the 1-tonne mosaic depicting Hercules is believed to have been created in the 3rd or 4th century and is consistent with mosaics found in Syria, particularly around the city of Idlib.

According to the complaint, filed this week in a US District Court, the government wants ownership transferred to the United States "for disposition according to law."

"It is possible the mosaic could be repatriated to Syria," US attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek said in an email. For the time being it is in the custody of the FBI.

It measures 5.5 metres long, and 2.5 metres high.

The complaint said federal agents seized it from the Palmdale home of Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi in March 2016, as part of an investigation into art that authorities believed may have been looted from Syria.

Alcharihi has not been charged with a crime, and Mrozek said the investigation is continuing.

The complaint alleges the mosaic was imported into the US in 2015 with paperwork indicating it was part of a shipment of vases and mosaics worth only about $US2,000.

Authorities say Alcharihi later told them he paid about $US12,000 for it but gave Customs officials the lower figure to reduce the import duty he'd have to pay.

The government says it has obtained preliminary estimates by antiquities experts that put its value somewhere between $US100,000 and $US200,000.

Australian Associated Press