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'Fake' Iranian gift from US tied to Geneva gallery

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'Fake' Iranian gift from US tied to Geneva gallery
Photo: US Government
00:01 CEST+02:00
An antique said to be 2,700 years old and worth more than $1 million given by the US government to Iran last month as a gesture of goodwill is a fake that was originally sold by a Geneva art gallery, according to a report from an American online website.

The Tablet, which bills itself as a “A new read on Jewish life”, called the silver griffin given to the Iranian government a “bad fake” and cited an expert New York curator who said it dates from 1999 at the earliest.

Website contributor Alex Joffe, an archeologist and historian, quotes Oscar White Muscarella, a retired former research fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who called the supposed artefact with its three drinking goblets a forgery that looks “modern Iranian”.

Joffe says the object was on display in a Geneva art gallery and was purchased in 2002.

In a paper for the website Savingantiquities.org, Muscarella says the object was purchased by a Metropolitan Museum of Art trustee, Paula Cussi, for $1 million.

“The griffin was confiscated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (on a legal technicality) and the purchase price was subsequently returned by the vendor,” the researcher, who retired in 2009, says.

He identifies the vendor as Hicham Aboutaam, a partner with his brother Ali, in Phoenix Ancient Art, which runs a gallery at 6 rue Verdaine in Geneva’s Old Town, in addition to one in New York.

Muscarella says the griffin is a “failed attempt by its creator to make it look ancient Iranian”.

It is “generously equipped with three funnels, one in an unsuitable place for an ancient object, but appropriate in the modern world,” he said referring to the one coming out of the figure’s rear end.

Joffe acknowledges that Muscarella has only seen a photo of the griffin but that was enough to convince him it was a forgery.

Mainstream American media have not picked up the story and the US government was not immediately commenting on the report, which contrasts with information released at the time the item was given to Iran.

“We are taking this as America’s souvenir to the people,” Mohammad-Ali Najafi, Iran’s cultural heritage chief, told CNN after the gift was presented.

The cable news network said Najafi was to present the griffin publicly after returning from New York last month.

“I believe this will have a very positive effect on the Iranians,” he was quoted as saying.

Earlier reports indicated the silver drinking vessel had been stolen from an excavation site in northwestern Iran.

Phoenix Ancient Art, meanwhile, says on its website that it has “developed one of the antiquities trade’s most vigorous and stringent procedures of due diligence for establishing the provenance and ownership history of its objects”.

The gallery said it goes to great length to establish the authenticity of any of its proposed works of art and offers clients “our guarantee with regard to the object’s authenticity and provenance”.  

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