Tuesday, October 3, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Question of ‘looted’ Syrian mosaic or forgery goes to jury

Defense experts have challenged the authenticity of a mosaic that the government says was illegally imported into the U.S.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A jury must decide whether a Southern California man intentionally lied about an ancient Roman mosaic he shipped to the U.S. in 2015. Prosecutors believe it was looted from war-torn Syria, while the defense claims it was a forgery about which there was nothing to hide.

"If he was trying to hide the fact that he had imported an ancient mosaic, why is he telling everyone," Isabel Bussarakum, an attorney for Mohamad Alcharihi, said during her closing argument Tuesday afternoon.

Alcharihi is accused of lying about the value and quality of the 18 by 8 feet mosaic that he imported from Turkey, claiming it was worth just $587. An appraisal expert called to testify by prosecutors with the U.S. attorney's office in LA told the jury the mosaic could be worth as much as $450,000.

The authenticity and potential value of the mosaic, depicting the punishment of Prometheus and Hercules coming to the rescue of the chained titan, has been key to Alcharihi's defense because, as Bussarakum argued, if experts are divided over the value of work, it creates reasonable doubt that her client lied about it.

Earlier Tuesday, David Parrish, a professor of ancient art at Purdue University, testified that he believed the work was a forgery because of the very unusual iconography — the wife and child of Prometheus are depicted, which he said was unheard of, and Hercules's famous lion skin was a "very ambiguous looking piece of drapery" — as well as the very poor craftsmanship compared to the very high standards in Roman Syria at the time.

Parrish had been asked by the Justice Department to examine the mosaic in 2018 and told them at the time that he thought it was a forgery.

"They seemed to be disappointed by that conclusion," he told the jurors.

Last week an ancient art dealer and appraiser retained by Alcharihi's defense testified that there were many red flags regarding the mosaics authenticity, including that Prometheus's wife appeared to be wearing trousers, which was unheard of for Greek and Roman women.

Whether the jury will believe the defense experts, however, may have very little bearing on whether they find Alcharihi guilty of lying about what was in the ocean container that arrived in Long Beach in August 2015.

When FBI and Homeland Security agents arrived at his door in March the following year, he told them that he paid $12,000 to a seller in Turkey and that the mosaic was 2,000 years old. He's accused of lying about the value of the shipment to the customs broker who prepared the import declaration for him because he tried to avoid paying duty, which he wouldn't have had to pay in any case over a work of art.

He also allegedly lied about the quality of what was in the container, which contained the ancient mosaic rolled up like a carpet behind large, ornamental vases. He didn't provide photos of the mosaic to the customs broker and gave shifting descriptions of what he was bringing into the country, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew O'Brien, said in his closing argument.

"This wasn't some oversight or accident," O'Brien told the jury. "It was the plan. He was acting intentionally, and he wasn't duped or making a mistake."

According to text messages, Alcharihi was contacted by an associate of his, a Syrian man living in Saudi Arabia, early in 2015 about the mosaic, which they believed could be worth $1 million.

"The guys delivered it to Turkey," said one of the messages from the co-conspirator.

They then concocted a plan to ship it to the U.S. hidden a container with 80 large vases and a few modern mosaics. They also communicated about creating a phony provenance for the work, which would make it easier to sell, including with fake Syrian court documents that Alcharihi was legal owner of the mosaic.

Once Alcharihi had the mosaic in California, he had it restored at a cost of $40,000, which together with the $12,000 he paid for it and the shipping costs put him in a $68,000 hole for a work he claimed was worth only $587, O'Brien told the jury. Since he wasn't a rich man, or an art expert for that matter, he had to borrow from family and friends, the government lawyer said.

"The defendant believed in the scheme," O'Brien said. "He was confident he would get rich of it."

The Justice Department seized the almost 2,000-pound mosaic from Alcharihi's residence in Palmdale, California, in 2016 and is seeking its forfeiture.

Follow @edpettersson
Categories / Arts, Criminal, International, Trials

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.