Smuggled Iranian carving worth £30m seized at airport by UK border patrol

<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

It was carved almost 2,000 years ago and is such an important sculpture that if it appeared on the art market today it could fetch more than £30m.

But this is a previously unrecorded antiquity that can never be sold. For the large fragment of a Sasanian rock relief – which depicts an imposing male figure carved in the 3rd century AD – has been freshly gouged from a cliff in Iran with an angle grinder.

It was heading for the black market in Britain when it was seized at Stansted airport. Border Force officers became suspicious when they saw its haphazard packaging, perhaps intended to suggest that it was a worthless item. The antiquity, which is over one metre in height, was hacked out of living rock or rock that has been carved in situ.

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Dr St John Simpson, a senior curator and archaeologist in the British Museum’s department of the Middle East, said: “We almost never come across a case of something being cut out of the “living rock”. That’s a level of brutalism that surpasses anything.

“You’ve even got felt-tip marks on the back before they’ve used an angle grinder to slice diagonally behind it and across the top. It was then packed in an incredibly bad manner, in a small, almost unpadded crate held together with nails.

“If it had been a state-of the-art art-handling type crate, that would have attracted a different sort of attention because it required all sorts of paperwork.” He has identified it as a unique rock relief sculpture dating to the period of the Sasanian empire, AD224-651.

“It belongs to a period when Iran was the centre of a powerful empire stretching from Syria to the Caucasus and Central Asia, and with its capital at Ctesiphon, south of present-day Baghdad,” he said. “The Sasanians were powerful rivals of Rome, and famous today for their fine silverwares and cut glass.”


As it was carved from a calcareous limestone, which is found across Iran, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact location. There are only about 30 known Sasanian rock reliefs in existence, mostly dating to the third century. Almost all are in a relatively small part of Iran, in their ancestral homeland of Fars province.

Simpson said: “We suspect it comes from somewhere in the Shiraz area. Stylistically, it is similar to one known in the region. I think it probably is part of a big sequence. There might be more bits out there.

“The lack of an inscription makes it impossible to identify the person depicted, but his dress and diademed headdress signifies him as a person of high rank. His gesture of greeting and submission, with a raised bent forefinger, is a feature of Sasanian art when figures are in the presence of royalty, which suggests that this was part of a larger composition, with the king to the right and perhaps other figures behind.”

The relief had broken into two because it had been so badly packed. The British Museum has now had it repaired by conservationists.

“It looks amazing”, Simpson said. “It is stunningly attractive. The valuation could be anything, really. We’re talking £20m to £30m-plus. There’s never been anything like it on the market.”

He said the artefact would be “incredibly valuable” on the black market. Looters were apparently undeterred by severe penalties in place if they are caught, he added. “In Iran, they still have the death penalty for trafficking of antiquities. People have been tried and executed in Iran within the last couple of decades.

We’re seeing more Iranian material – people are willing and able to break the sanctions, despite the death penalty

Dr St John Simpson, British Museum

“But in the last few years, we’ve seen more Iranian material. So that means that people are willing and able to break the sanctions.”

The case has been investigated by Interpol and the National Crime Agency, but no arrests have been made so far, although the packaging stipulated the sender, recipient and destination – a UK internet auction site, which said that it was not expecting it.

After the object was formally forfeited to the Crown, the British Museum received permission from the Iranian government to display it for three months before sending it to the National Museum in Tehran.

In a statement, Seyed Mahdi Hosseini Matin, chargé d’affaires of the Islamic Republic of Iran in London, said: “We sincerely hope that further expansion of cooperation between the British Museum and the Iranian Embassy in London would continue to be effective in fighting against illicit trafficking of cultural properties and protect the cultural heritage of mankind”.