When Iran's President Hassan Rohani came home from his charm offensive in New York last month, he arrived bearing a "special gift" from the United States.
But any resulting goodwill may be short-lived, with art experts now saying the 2,700-year-old Persian artifact that was returned to the Iranian people is a fake.
The piece, a silver chalice in the shape of a winged griffin, was thought to have originated from the Kalmakarra cave in western Iran and was estimated to be worth about $1 million.
U.S. Customs officials seized the artifact from an Iranian art dealer who was attempting to smuggle it into the country in 2003. The griffin sat in storage in a New York warehouse for more than a decade until Rohani's first presidential trip to the United Nations in September provided an opportunity for the United States to hand it over to Rohani's delegation.
Unfortunately, according to Hamid Baqaie, the former head of Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization, the artifact is without question a modern forgery. "Firstly, the way it has been made and the style in which it has been made shows it's a fake. This artifact doesn't have any roots in ancient Iran," Baqaie says. "Secondly, from a technical point of view the materials used to make it also show that it's not an original."
Archeologist Oscar White Muscarella, a former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has gone on record as saying he, too, does not believe the artifact is the real deal. He wrote in a paper published last year that it took only a glance at a photograph of the artifact to convince him it was a fake.
"It is a modern Iranian artifact," he wrote in the paper published
by the nonprofit organization SAFE/Saving Antiquities For Everyone. "For stylistic and technical reasons -- the griffin's head is frozen mute, its eyes stare, the head, wing, and leg patterns are awkward and meaningless, and the leg rivets are modern: all attributes unlike any ancient conception -- I condemned it as a forgery."
Muscarella, who excavated in Iran in the 1960s, estimated that the artifact was not more than 14 years old.
Baqaie says the black market is full of hundreds of forgeries of ancient Iranian artifacts, some of which make their way to art collections and museums in the West. He suggests that the United States must have known the artifact was fake.
In Iran, the return of the chalice was warmly welcomed. "The Americans contacted us and said, 'We have a gift for you,'" Rohani was quoted as saying by Iran's state media on September 28. "They gave it back as a special gift to the Iranian nation."
Mohammad Ali Najafi, the current head of Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization, unveiled the artifact on September 28 at Tehran's Mehrbad Airport after returning with Rohani from New York. "We hope this will mark the beginning of the return of other artifacts," he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.
The U.S. State Department said in a press release on September 25 that it had returned the artifact. "It is considered the premier griffin of antiquity, a gift of the Iranian people to the world, and the United States is pleased to return it to the people of Iran."
The Iranian government has to yet to publicly issue a statement regarding the authenticity of the artifact.