A federal judge ruled Thursday that prosecutors may bring an ancient mosaic depicting the Roman god Hercules dating from the 3rd or 4th century and weighing a ton to a Downtown Los Angeles courtroom for the trial of a Palmdale man charged with illegally importing the antiquity into the United States.
Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi, 55, is accused of smuggling the piece into the U.S. with false and fraudulent documents with the intent to avoid import duties and concealing it at his home. The Byzantine artwork was seized by FBI agents in 2016.
Trial is scheduled for May 2 in Los Angeles federal court.
At a hearing on Thursday morning, U.S. District Judge George Wu granted the government’s motion to admit the mosaic as evidence at trial, federal prosecutors told City News Service.
Authorities say the relic, which is 18 feet long and eight feet tall and weighs one ton, was looted from war-torn Syria and smuggled via Turkey. It depicts Hercules and other figures from Roman mythology.
The 2020 indictment alleges that Alcharihi claimed he was importing a mosaic and other items valued at about $2,200, when in fact he was importing an ancient mosaic experts value as worth at least 50 times that amount. The indictment also alleges that he misrepresented the quality of the mosaic and what the artwork depicted.
Alcharihi’s federal public defender could not immediately be reached for comment.
The defense argued that photographs of the mosaic as it was found in Alcharihi’s garage in 2016, and as it progressed through a restoration process that purportedly cost over $40,000 would be sufficient for the jury.
Federal prosecutors argued that while there is a plethora of photographic evidence of the mosaic in its various stages, photographs are “inadequate and cannot convey the size, scope, and other features of the mosaic.”
The government asserted that viewing the mosaic is germane to its experts’ testimony regarding the provenance, value and quality of the artwork.
The defendant countered that viewing the mosaic is irrelevant to the charged offense and that seeing the mosaic as it currently exists would be confusing, misleading and prejudicial because of the restoration and, thus, the item no longer is in the same state as when Alcharihi purchased it.
Wu agreed with the government, finding that photographs cannot convey the full size, scope and other features of the piece.
The judge also rejected the defense contention that actually viewing the mosaic is irrelevant to the charge in this case.
“Consideration of the features of the mosaic is clearly relevant to evaluations of its value and quality, especially as expounded upon by experts in the field,” Wu wrote in a tentative ruling issued on Tuesday.
After the mosaic was seized, an expert retained by the government concluded that the artwork “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 papers show.
The complaint alleges that the mosaic was imported into the U.S. with paperwork indicating that it was part of a shipment of vases and mosaics worth only about $2,200 but that Alcharihi later admitted paying $12,000 for the items. Preliminary estimated values for the mosaic are much higher, according to the complaint.
The U.S. has adopted import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material from Syria. A government spokesman previously said the mosaic could eventually be repatriated to Syria.