Man Charged With Smuggling Roman-Era Mosaic From War-Torn Syria

Federal agents say this Roman-era floor mosaic depicting the Greek mythological figures Heracles, Zeus and Aphrodite was smuggled from Syria into Southern California.

(CN) — A Southern California man who falsely claimed he was importing vases and other works from Syria when in fact he was lugging an ancient mosaic depicting the Greek demigod Heracles was charged Friday by federal prosecutors with illegally transporting the artwork.

The mosaic, likely looted from Syria during its ongoing civil war, is believed to have been made in the 3rd or 4th century A.D.

Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi, 53, brought the artwork into the United States using import documents that stated he was transporting ceramic goods and other items valued at no more than $2,199. 

Prosecutors say Alcharihi hired a California customs broker in August 2015 to facilitate the transfer of three mosaics and 81 vases into the Port of Long Beach near Los Angeles.

Alcharihi also misrepresented the historical value of the mosaic and what the artwork depicted, prosecutors said Friday, adding he deployed the false and fraudulent documents in order to avoid paying higher import duties.

Alcharihi, a resident of Palmdale, California, was named in a federal indictment Friday that charges him with one count of entry of goods falsely classified.

A summons for Alcharihi to appear for an arraignment in federal court has not yet been issued.

Alcharihi further violated federal law by concealing the mosaic of the mythological hero at his home in Southern California, prosecutors said.

Special agents from both the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations seized the artwork from Alcharihi’s residence in Palmdale in March 2016.

The seizure came as part of a federal investigation into the trafficking of items looted from foreign conflict zones.  

The government is also pursuing civil forfeiture of the antiquity, according to a 2018 statement by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in a federal complaint.

“The appearance in the United States of stolen or illegally exported artifacts from other countries where there has been pillage has, on occasion, strained our foreign and cultural relations,” the statement said. “It became apparent that it was in the national interest of the United States to join with other countries to suppress illegal trafficking of such objects in international commerce.”

Heracles — the son of Zeus, king of the gods — is depicted on the 18-foot, 1 ton Byzantine Period mosaic alongside Aphrodite and Zeus, according to an email by Alcharihi recovered by federal investigators.

Prosecutors say Alcharihi is a Syrian national and became a U.S. citizen in 2010.

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