The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) extends its congratulations to both the Government of Libya and the Government of France for the successful recovery of a bust over 2,000 years old, smuggled out of Libya. Acting on a tip from officials at the Louvre Museum, French authorities launched an investigation into the artefact’s origin. With the assistance of key archaeologists, they confirmed the bust’s Libyan origin, specifically from the region of Cyrenaica, present-day Northeast Libya. Authorities determined that the bust had been illicitly removed and smuggled out of the country. Cyrenaica has long been plagued by theft and looting of its archaeological sites, including funerary statues and other ancient artefacts, many of which are listed as endangered on the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Red List of Libyan heritage.
Dating back to somewhere between the third and first century B.C., the bust represents a crucial piece of Libyan heritage. The artefact was returned to Libya in an official handover ceremony held at the Embassy of Libya in Paris on 12 October 2023.
Key entities that played a fundamental role in this complex operation included the French Archaeological Mission in Libya, particularly archaeologist Morgan Belzic, in collaboration with the Libyan Asset Recovery and Management Office (LARMO), the Libyan Department of Antiquities, the French Office Central de lutte contre le trafic des Biens Culturels (OCBC), the French Ministry of Culture, the French National Police, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Louvre Museum.
Due to UNICRI’s expertise in these matters, the Institute was invited to participate in the official handover. UNICRI’s global efforts in asset recovery are funded by the European Union (EU). In Libya, its initiatives are supported through the project “Building Libya’s National Capacity to Prevent and Combat Corruption and Money Laundering.”
UNICRI provides direct technical expertise to the Libyan Asset Recovery and Management Office (LARMO) on multiple cases involving assets valued well over USD 60 billion located outside of Libya. These assets include stolen cash, diamonds, gold and other assets that have been converted into real estate, aircraft and various other forms.
The return of the Libyan bust from France to Libya serves as another remarkable example of multilateral operations in the recovery of stolen assets.
Recognizing that stolen Libyan assets are not limited to cultural assets, and considering the dire humanitarian situation in Libya, UNICRI strongly encourages all States to consider unfreezing at least a significant portion of Libyan financial assets and channelling them back to Libyan citizens through transparent and monitorable means. Even a small portion of Libya’s frozen assets abroad (e.g., in Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, among other countries) can be directed to urgent needs, such as supporting victims of the recent flooding in Derna.
To understand the breadth and extent of the amount of Libyan assets frozen abroad, UNICRI highlights that if only 10% of Libya’s frozen assets abroad are released and returned, this would cover essential healthcare costs, including dialysis and chemotherapy, for over 200,000 Libyans. These funds could also provide pensions for more than 100,000 citizens, subsidize minimum wage costs for over 100,000 youths nationwide, cover the entire annual cost of educating over 83,000 students, or finance the salaries of more than 1,800 new teachers.
In light of this, UNICRI urges all Member States to promptly exercise the use of UN Resolution 2664, which allows Member States to return frozen assets to Libya to address such urgent humanitarian needs. For further details, please refer to Resolution 2664 (2022) on the official UN website.
UNICRI, generously funded by the European Union, is committed to providing expert guidance to all Member States in the complex fields of asset recovery and combating illicit financial flows. For more information on UNICRI’s work in these areas, please visit the following links: UNICRI: Asset Recovery.