Pillaged Roman-Era Mosaic Recovered in Palmdale Home, Seized by FBI

An ancient mosaic that investigators believe was smuggled from war-torn Syria is now in FBI custody after being traced to a Palmdale garage, federal prosecutors said Friday.

The artifact that has been dated to the 3rd or 4th century, when modern Syria was part of the Roman Empire, was illegally brought to the U.S. in 2015 by Palmdale resident Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California alleges in an asset forfeiture complaint filed Wednesday.

The Byzantine art piece that depicts Hercules alongside other figures from Roman mythology measures 18 feet long and weighs one ton, officials said.

Alcharihi is accused of smuggling the mosaic through the Port of Long Beach by claiming the shipment contained 81 vases and three mosaics from Turkey worth only about $2,200.

Federals officials are still working to determine its true value, but said estimates are much higher than even the $12,000 Alcharihi later admitted to paying for the piece.

It’s unclear exactly how the FBI was able to trace the relic to a Palmdale garage, but prosecutors said it was part of an investigation into the “smuggling [of] looted items believed to be from a foreign conflict area into the United States.”

Syria has been targeted with the pillaging of cultural property since the artifact-rich nation began descending into turmoil in 2011.

An email received by Alcharihi and uncovered by investigators claimed the piece was unearthed from a destructed historical building in Idlib, a northern Syrian city where several ancient civilizations thrived. The same message said it depicts Zeus, Hercules and Aphrodite, “telling a story of releasing Zeus from prison after he was captured in a war by his enemies.”

The mosaic was seized by the FBI in March 2016 after agents interviewed two men who had done restoration work on it.

It was then evaluated by an expert, who determined it “was an authentic mosaic from the Byzantine Period depicting Roman mythology, and was consistent with the iconography of mosaics found in Syria, in particular in and around the city of Idlib, Syria,” court documents state.

The artwork’s ultimate fate is, for now, unclear.