@StateDept: This week, the U.S. returned to #Iran this 7th century artifact that @CustomsBorder seized from a smuggler in 2003. http://pic.twitter.com/zh5How99qr
(Posting from BB, sorry; click on the link for a photo)
A few archaeologists have thought there is something 'wrong' with the 7th century BC silver vessel, including me, but the Iranians believe that it was probably looted from the Kalmakarra Cave between 1989 and 1992.
Firstly it is worth drawing a parallel to the Weiss coins, which were assumed to be genuine as they were smuggled, but turned out not to be.
Whether the rhyton came from this cave or not will never be certain as it was looted.
What we do know of its provenance is that it was hand-carried by Aboutaam from Geneva to New York in February 2000, and despite telling the collector he sold it to that it was from Iran, he gave Syria as its country on origin on customs forms. Falsifying a commercial invoice was the only thing Aboutaam was found guilty of, and one must assume he innocently bought the rhyton in good faith.
The invoice was issued by Tanit Antiquities Ltd, a subsidiary of Phoenix Ancient Art. The importer of record was the Bloomfield Collection.
Paula Cussi, a New York private collector paid $950,000 for the griffon. Collectors are often criticised, but she is the one that brought in ICE over her concerns with the rhyton.
When Cussi saw the rhyton in Geneva in 1999 she was told it was from Iran, and when she asked for confirmation of this after delivery she was provided with three 'expert' reports in January 2002 confirming that the vessel was from the Western aka Kalmakarra Cave.
The collector informed Customs of her concerns and the item was seized.
The story is long and convoluted but it shows how well ICE can work, able to confiscate a dubious item of the 'technicality' of a lie on a customs form. It is illegal to import Iranian items into the US, so that would have been another 'technicality' ICE could have used. It's a pity it took so long for the item to be returned to Iran, but hopefully other items from the hoard, for example those in the Miho Museum in Japan, will join it. And hopefully Mr Aboutaam is helping the Iranians with this, now that he is aware that these items were looted.