Persian Griffin

Griffin artefact returned to Iran from US is a fake

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Last month we reported on a major development for ethics in archaeology when we saw the US return a historically significant artefact to Iran – a precious Persian silver chalice dating back 2,700 years which depicts a Griffin, a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, found in the legends of many cultures around the world.  But unfortunately the move, which was intended to aid diplomatic relations between the US and Iran, has fallen flat on its face after it was proven that the artefact is in fact a fake produced in 1999. The discovery has caused a deeply problematic beginning in relations between the two Nations.

It was said that the ancient artefact of the Griffin was made around 700 BC during the pre-Achaemenid period before the founding of the first Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC. It was then apparently stolen by looters from the Kalmakarra Cave, known as the Western Cave, halfway up a cliff in the western highlands of Iran sometime between 1989 and 1992 and sold to a private buyer. 

However, the griffin was first seen in Geneva in the gallery of prominent Iranian art dealers and in 2002 was sold to Paula Cussi, a Mexican billionaire and trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 Cussi first saw the piece in Geneva in 1999, the year before the antiquities dealer, Hicham Aboutaam, brought it to the US from Zurich. As a condition of sale, Cussi had asked Aboutaam for authentication of the piece and he promptly called upon three people to provide proof to Cussi, all of whom stated that the item dated back to approximately 700 BC and appears to have come from the Western Cave.  Their testimonies have been drawn into question, particularly considering that one of them only examined a small slice of the silver and another of them was an Egyptologist and not qualified to comment on the style of Western Cave relics.

A US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigation followed the journey of the artefact and when the relic arrived in New York in 2003 the piece was confiscated. The case went to court in New York, Aboutaam returned the money to Cussi and paid a fine of $5,000.  The buyer got her money back and the artefact was seized but the market was barely disturbed. The artefact sat in Homeland Security storage for a decade until its recent return to Iran.



For Oscar White Muscarella, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator and leading authority on antiquities fakes, it took only a glance at a photograph of the relic to prove to him that it is fake. It is made of silver sections joined together to form a winged griffin that walks on splayed, clawed feet. Most improbable are three funnels, two on the sides coming out of the body below the wings and one that protrudes from the creature’s rear end. The griffin-as-saxophone design has no parallels in the ancient world, except perhaps among other objects “said to be” from western Iran that have appeared on the antiquities market.  According to Muscarella, it looks crude and absurd and should have led the buyer to ask what sort of nonsense was being pushed.  He described the object as followed:

“The vessel has been consistently labeled a rhyton in print, but this would be correct only if the creature’s open mouth served as a pouring spout for liquids poured into the funnels (wine, water, body wastes?). . . .  It is a modern Iranian artifact.  For stylistic and technical reasons — the griffin’s head is frozen mute, its eyes stare, the head, wing and leg patterns are awkward and meaningless, and the leg rivets are modern: all attributes unlike any ancient conception — I condemned it as a forgery.”

Unfortunately, the case shows that the system that allows objects to be torn out of the ground from sites of immense historical significance is simply too profitable to shut down. The rich and powerful want what they want, the market provides, and scholars and museums play along in exchange for a piece of the action.

By April Holloway

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