Stolen Persian artifact turns up in Edmonton apartment
February 14, 2013
For two years, a stolen ancient artifact worth $1.2 million sat on an Ikea bookshelf in a south Edmonton apartment, displayed above a plastic Star Wars spaceship, flanked by crystals and a small collection of stuffed animals. The Persian bas-relief sculpture, dating from the fifth century BC, sat slightly behind a handmade vase decorated with a painted fish and filled with dried flowers.
Then, at about 9 a.m. on Jan. 22, a team of police officers working with Quebec RCMP’s Integrated Art Crime Investigation Team banged on Simon Metke’s apartment door.
“There’s like 20 RCMP officers flooding my place, the sunshine’s coming in, the crystals are making rainbows everywhere, the bougainvillea flowers are glowing in the sunrise light,” Simon Metke, 33, said Thursday evening, sitting cross-legged in his south Edmonton apartment.
“And I’m just sort of, ‘What the heck is going on?’ And, OK, here’s the thing I think you’re looking for. This thing is a lot more significant than I thought it was.”
Police say the sculpture was stolen from Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts in September 2011. The same thief is then believed to have taken a second piece from the museum a month later. That piece, a statuette of a man dating from the first century BC, is still missing. The man who took the pieces has not been charged. Police aren’t saying what led them to Metke.
Metke said he bought the sculpture from the neighbour of a friend in Montreal, thinking it was an “interesting replica” or maybe an antique – but mostly drawn to it because of his own interest in Mesopotamian religion and art.
“I didn’t realize that it was an actual piece of the Persepolis,” he said, referring to the ancient Persian ceremonial capital. “I’m honoured to have had it, but I feel really hurt that I wasn’t able to have a positive experience in the end with it.”
He said he was somewhat skeptical about buying the piece for $1,400 – mostly because he thought it might not be worth it. In the end, he said he bought it to help out his friend, a “starving artist” who received a $300 commission, and the seller, who said he needed to pay child support and rent, and assured Metke it was “a good deal.”
Metke said he thought of taking it to Iran or Iraq to see if an art expert knew what it was, or going on Antiques Roadshow with it.
“That would have been an interesting Antiques Roadshow, I guess,” he said. Instead, Metke was charged with possession of stolen property. He and his 25-yearold girlfriend, Jana Lang, were also charged with trafficking marijuana and possession of money obtained by crime.
Metke said he had been working on getting his medical marijuana licence, and that the money seized by RCMP were donations and savings to start a business teaching children about ecology.
“I hope that people will understand, this is just something I thought was neat,” he said.
“This was an interesting piece of art that I could put on the shelf and have represent my own personal spiritual journey that I was going through.”
Quebec provincial police announced the recovery of the artifact and the charges at a news conference Thursday in Montreal. The artifact was displayed under armed guard.
Danielle Champagne, director of the Museum of Fine Arts’ foundation, called the thefts of the two pieces “very unusual.” The last theft from the museum was in 1972, she said.
Metke said he is worried about the charges, and particularly the impact they will have on his girlfriend. Neither of them have been in trouble with the police before, he said.
Still, he said he’s glad he was able to care for the ancient piece – even if he didn’t know it.
“It sort of feels like it may have come to me to be protected so that it didn’t get destroyed or lost or something like that …,” he said. “I’m not really happy with the way that I found out what it was, but … I’m really honoured to have been able to look after it.”
He said he wishes he had known what it was, so he could have turned it in for the reward.
-With files from Cailynn Klingbeil