A statue lost for centuries was found in the Gaza Strip, seized by police and has since disappeared from public view.
The statue of the Greek god Apollo is at least 2,000 years old – made sometime between the 5th and 1st centuries BC. Joudat Ghrab, 26, a local fisherman, said he saw the half-ton statue on the seafloor of the Mediterranean in August and brought it home. The statue was posted on eBay briefly for $500,000 – well below its estimated value of $20 million to $40 million -- before it was taken by the Islamist group Hamas, Reuters reports.
"It's unique. In some ways I would say it is priceless. It's like people asking what is the [value] of the painting La Gioconda [the Mona Lisa] in the Louvre museum," Jean-Michel de Tarragon, a historian with the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, said. "It's very, very rare to find a statue which is not in marble or in stone, but in metal."
While archeologists have yet to examine the rare statue firsthand, based on the images that show the statue was well-preserved, experts say it was most likely recovered on land, not in the sea.
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"This wasn't found on the seashore or in the sea ... it is very clean. No, it was [found] inland and dry," de Tarragon said about the six-foot-tall statue, adding that the metal would have been disfigured or barnacles present if it had been found in water.
But Ghrab defends his story, adding that he thought the statue was a badly burned body before he dove down and discovered it was actually a “treasure.”
"I felt it was something gifted to me by God," Ghrab told Reuters. "My financial situation is very difficult and I am waiting for my reward." Ghrab admits to cutting off one of the statue’s fingers to have the metal appraised. His brothers also severed fingers that were melted down by a jeweler.
Family members belonging to Hamas soon took possession of the statue. Officials from Gaza’s tourism ministry told Reuters the statue will not be displayed publicly until a criminal investigation is completed on who tried to sell the item online.
"It is a precious treasure, an important archaeological discovery," Ahmed Al-Bursh, the ministry's director of archaeology, said. "International institutions have also contacted us and have offered to help with the repair process."
The last time a find reminiscent of the latest Apollo statue was in 1996 when a recreational diver in Croatia spotted an ancient bronze statue of an athlete. The government restored it and displayed it on an international museum tour.
The Apollo statue is stuck in a bit of a quandary. The Gaza Strip, a coastal Palestinian territory, is controlled by the militant Islamist group Hamas – making the purchase of the Apollo statue limited since it would be considered violating international sanctions against financing terrorism, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports. If the statue was smuggled, it would be a challenge. The Gaza Strip not only shares heavily armed borders with Israel and Egypt but its coastline is also under heavy guard by the Israeli Navy. If the statue remains in the Gaza Strip, it would not become a tourist attractio, because Hamas’ fundamentalist principles condemn nudity.
“This case is fiendishly difficult,” Sam Hardy, a British archaeologist who runs the website Conflict Antiquities, said. “National and international laws make it difficult to assist the administration in the West Bank, let alone that in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, any sale or leasing of the statue might normalize looting of antiquities as a funding stream for Hamas.”