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Women didn’t wear trousers, expert says in questioning authenticity of ‘looted’ mosaic

The strange iconography and poor craftsmanship of the mosaic cast doubt on its authenticity, a defense expert testified.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Greek and Roman women didn't wear trousers in antiquity, an appraisal expert testified Thursday in disputing the authenticity of a purportedly late Roman mosaic that federal prosecutors say was likely looted from Syria and illegally imported into the U.S.

"It's a symbol of male barbarism to wear trousers," said Randall Hixenbaugh, a New York art dealer and expert on ancient art, who was called by the defense in the trial of a Southern California man accused of lying about the value of the 18 by 8 feet mosaic he had shipped to the U.S. in 2015.

Hixenbaugh told the jurors in LA federal court that many aspects of the iconography of the mosaic, which shows Hercules shooting the eagle that has been tormenting Prometheus daily by eating the liver of the chained titan, were very strange, and the overall craftsmanship of the work was below par for a mosaic that rich Romans would decorate their floors with.

Particularly puzzling, according to Hixenbaugh, was a woman with a boy in the picture who might represent Prometheus' wife even though she has no role in any version of the myth that he could recall. The fact that the woman appears to be wearing trousers was striking since it was unheard for women in antiquity when only barbarian men wore such garments, Hixenbaugh testified.

Yassin Alcharihi's retained the art dealer to appraise the fair market value of the mosaic that the government claims is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Alcharihi is on trial on charges he lied about the content and value of a shipment of decorative vases and mosaics he received from Turkey in 2015, which contained the ancient mosaic, claiming it was worth just $587. 

Hixenbaugh, who stopped short of calling the mosaic a fake, estimated its value after Alcharihi had it restored in 2016 at about $30,000. Before it was restored, according to the appraiser, it would have been worth $30,000 less the amount spent repairing the mosaic that arrived in a container rolled up like a carpet.

Since Alcharihi claims to have spent $40,000 to have the mosaic restored, its value would have been less than zero, according to the appraiser's estimate.

The large open spaces, the lack of names to identify who's depicted and the confusing and poor rendering of the individual figures all were red flags that this wasn't an authentic Roman mosaic, Hixenbaugh said.

"These were luxury items," he told the jury. "They were meant to impress."

Under cross-examination by the prosecution, Hixenbaugh affirmed that he never studied the mosaic in person, only through photographs, and that he didn't conduct any scientific analysis of the materials to determine its age. He wasn't too impressed with a photograph that the prosecution says shows the mosaic has apparently been removed from a floor because there wasn't any earth in the picture as expected with an excavation.

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, particularly 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."

Hixenbaugh was called by the defense even though the prosecution hasn't rested yet to accommodate his schedule. The case could go to the jury as soon as Tuesday.

Follow @edpettersson
Categories / Arts, Criminal, International

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