London and Paris markets flooded with Iranian antiquities looted from newly discovered site at Jiroft

Before police intervened, thousands of objects were plundered by locals and sold on to Europe


Jiroft, Iran

In January 2001 a group of Iranians from Jiroft in the southwestern province of Kerman stumbled upon an ancient tomb. Inside they found a hoard of objects decorated with highly distinctive engravings of animals, mythological figures and architectural motifs. They did not realise it at the time but they had just made one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries of recent years, one that is radically altering accepted notions of the development of the world’s earliest civilisations in Iran and Mesopotamia between the fourth and third millennia BC.

A few weeks after the discovery, officials from Iran’s Ministry of Culture, vastly out numbered by local people, watched hopelessly as thousands systematically dug up the area. The locals set up a highly organised impromptu system to manage the looting: each family was allocated an equal plot of six square-metres to dig.

This organised pillaging continued for an entire year. Dozens of tombs were discovered, some containing up to 60 objects, and thousands of ancient objects were removed. All of these were destined for overseas markets.

In February 2002 Iran’s Islamic police finally arrived in force to stop the destruction. Some 2,000 objects were confiscated from locals in Jiroft and other hoards of the ancient artefacts ready to be shipped overseas were seized in Tehran and at Bandar Abbas.

The objects confiscated by the police are unlike anything ever seen before by archaeologists. Many are made from chlorite, a grey-green soft stone, others are in copper, bronze, terracotta, even lapis lazuli. They are now being studied by a group of Iranian archaeologists led by Professor Yousef Madjidzadeh. Official excavation of the site began in February 2003. It is focusing on both the necropolis, which was looted extensively, and on an ancient settlement not discovered by the looters.

The finds at Jiroft were first publicised last August when an illustrated catalogue of some of the objects was circulated at a conference in Tehran (Yousef Majidzadeh, Jiroft: the earliest Oriental civilisation, Organisation of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Tehran, 2003).

But much of the damage done at Jiroft is irreversible: the tombs that were plundered were completely emptied and hoards of the artefacts have already appeared for sale in Europe. In 2002 vases from the site were offered for sale at Drouot in Paris and, according to market specialists, the artefacts are on offer with several dealers in France. They are usually catalogued as vases from “Kerman” or with the more generic description of “Middle Eastern”.

A group of some 80 Jiroft artefacts was known to be on offer in London last year with a price tag of £600,000. An important group, seen by the author of this article, is now being offered for sale in a prominent London gallery. The dealer said that he is worried about the growing number of fake Jiroft vases now circulating on the market. These could be the work of the very same locals who looted the site in the first place and have access to the same chlorite quarries of their ancestors.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'London and Paris markets flooded with looted Iranian antiquities'