Cultural official Yunis Samadi said on Tuesday that his government was prepared to take further legal action if the world-famous auction house refused to return the artefact.

The limestone relief, featuring a head of an Achaemenid soldier, is said to have come from the eastern stairways of Apadana palace, which was built by Xerxes I. The Persepolis site is in the modern-day Fars province. 

According to Samadi, the piece was smuggled out of Iran "sometime between 1933 and 1974", when it is thought to have gone on auction at another British house, Sotheby's.
  
The legal complaint marks the first time Iran has tried to retrieve Persepolis artifacts from foreign countries.
  
"We can prove the relief belongs to Iran. It has to return as it has been illegally taken out of the country," Samadi said. "Pictures from the stairway show the relief fits in perfectly."

Christie's reply

A spokeswoman for the British auction house, Clare Roberts, told Aljazeera.net on Tuesday that a London court had indeed ordered the fragment be withdrawn from sale to enable Iran to put forward evidence in support of its claim.

"Christie's was happy to comply because, as a responsible auctioneer, we wish to give Iran the opportunity to research its claim and satisfy itself that there is no basis for its claim," he said.

"We can prove the relief belongs to Iran. It has to return as it has been illegally taken out of the country. Pictures from the stairway show the relief fits in perfectly"

Yunis Samadi,
Iran's cultural affairs spokesman

Roberts added that the relief's provenance had been published in both its catalogue and website, demonstrating the relic had been publicly and legitimately traded in 1974.

Christie's said Tehran had never given the auction house an opportunity to discuss Iran's claim, but rather had made its objection just 48 hours before the sale - despite some very public advertisements in Iran and around the world - and had provided no evidence to support its claim.

When contacted by Aljazeera.net, Iran's cultural attache in London refused to confirm any details about its case or the evidence for its claim.

Unique site

A perfect example of ancient Persian art, the piece depicts one of the famous Achaemenid warriors walking ahead of a delegation that carries gifts to the king.

Persepolis was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire and was founded by Darius I in 518 BCE. The city was built on an immense half-artificial, half-natural terrace, where Darius created an impressive palace complex inspired by Mesopotamian models.

The importance and quality of the monumental ruins make it a unique archaeological site.
  
It was to be auctioned on 20 April, for at least $380,000, according to the cultural heritage organisation website.
  
Iranian official Samadi hopes to have the international community's support in returning the Achaemenid soldier, as Persepolis is inscribed on Unesco's World Heritage List.
  
Earlier in January, Britain handed back more than a 100 artefacts looted from the ancient city of Jiroft in southeastern Iran and smuggled out of the country.