LOS ANGELES (CN) — A Southern California man went on trial Wednesday to fight charges he illegally imported a Roman mosaic that the Justice Department believes was likely looted from Syria during that country's civil war.
Yassin Alcharihi, 56, was charged with lying about the content and value of a shipment of vases and mosaics he received from Turkey in 2015, which contained the ancient mosaic, claiming it was worth just $587. The true value of the mosaic, according to government, is hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The FBI seized the mosaic, which measures about 18 by 8 feet and weighs roughly 2,000 pounds, in 2016 from Alcharihi's Palmdale, California, residence. An expert retained by the government opined that it was an authentic mosaic from the Byzantine Period and that the depiction of Hercules was consistent with the iconography of mosaics found in Syria, in particular in and around the city of Idlib.
According to the prosecution, Alcharihi received a text message in early 2015 from a Syrian associate that included a picture of the mosaic. Alcharihi and his alleged co-conspirator then bought dozens of vases and two new mosaics, and shipped these with the ancient mosaic to the U.S.
Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles started a forfeiture lawsuit against the mosaic in 2018. In court filings before his indictment, Alcharihi said he imported it "as trash" and spent $40,000 to restore it. Alcharihi also claimed that it was a "Turkish mosaic."
"The mosaic is a fake," Ashley Mahmoudian, a federal public defender representing Alcharihi, told jurors in her opening statement Wednesday afternoon.
"Mr. Alcharihi isn't an art expert," his lawyer said. "He didn't see the mosaic prior to its arrival in the U.S."
Alcharihi, according to his attorney, tended to have big ideas and was always looking for new opportunities and business ventures. He relied on a customs broker who had little experience with artwork to ship the mosaic to the U.S., and this individual made a lot of errors in the documentation, according to Mahmoudian.
The prosecution claims that Alcharihi's emails and admissions will prove he knew he was importing an almost 2,000-year-old Roman mosaic worth far more than he declared it to be.
An expert for the government will testify at the trial that the mosaic’s tesserae, the small colored stones used to create the image, are very old and that the materials originated in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, according to the government, the Greco-Roman myth depicted its stylistic similarities to other mosaics from the Syrian region, and the looting occurring in Syria in 2015, supports their expert's conclusion that the mosaic likely originated in Syria.Follow @edpettersson
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