A federal jury on Wednesday (21 June) convicted a Los Angeles-area man on charges that he smuggled an ancient Roman mosaic, believed to have been looted from war-torn Syria, into the United States. Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi, 56, was found guilty of one count of “entry of falsely classified goods”, the U.S. attorney’s office in the Central District of California said in a press release. He faces a maximum of two years in prison.
The FBI seized the 15-foot-long, 2,000-pound mosaic, which depicts the myth of Hercules rescuing Prometheus, from Alcharihi’s Palmdale residence in 2016, less than a year after he had shipped it in a container from Turkey to the U.S. He was charged in 2020 for lying about the value of its contents, falsely declaring to his customs broker that he was importing ceramic tiles valued at less than $600, officials say. The mosaic, believed to date to two millennia ago, is thought to have been created in Idlib Province, the rebel-controlled region in northwest Syria that has experienced widespread destruction and looting. Since its seizure from Alcharihi’s garage, it has been in storage at a secure facility in Los Angeles.
During the five-day trial, Alcharihi’s lawyer argued that her client had in fact purchased a modern forgery of the mosaic and imported it “as trash”. He later revealed that he had purchased the antiquity in 2015 for approximately $12,000. Text messages from early 2015 between him and an associate, a Syrian man living in Saudi Arabia, also indicate that the pair believed it could be worth $1m, according to Courthouse News. The two men also discussed falsifying the work’s provenance.
“The false classifications occurred months after the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, particularly by the terrorist organizations Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusrah Front.” the US Attorney’s Office said.
In California, Alcharichi paid $40,000 to have the mosaic restored, borrowing money from his friends and family. His communications and actions suggest that he was acting intentionally, Matthew O’Brien, assistant US Attorney, said in his closing argument. “The defendant believed in the scheme,” he said, Courthouse News reported. “He was confident he would get rich of it.” The US government’s appraisal expert has valued the mosaic at $450,000.
Alcharichi was released on bond pending his sentencing, which US District Judge George H. Wu has scheduled for 31 August.