The statue was seized by Border Force officials at Heathrow airport several years ago having been illicitly imported into the UK to be offered for sale.
In 2013 specialists at the British Museum were asked to assist in the identification of the statue. Museum staff alerted HMRC to the importance of the statue, noting that only a handful of these sculptural types are found outside Libya.
The museum said the fresh surface of the statue was characteristic of marble that had only been out of the soil for a few years. This suggested that it had been recently excavated and exported from the country of origin, possibly following the upheavals of 2011.
The museum gave evidence for the prosecution in a court case in 2015, and the judge ruled that the sculpture was owned by “the state of Libya”.
Since the court case the statue has been stored at the British Museum and it will now be transferred to the Libyan Embassy.
Specialists at the museum said it was easy to identify the statue as it is of a limited type restricted to workshops in Cyrenaica in ancient Libya. Statues of this type, carved as three-quarter-length figures terminating at the level of the hips are a phenomenon seen only in a few regions of the Mediterranean, but most come from Cyrenaican cemeteries.
The British Museum said it has close ties with colleagues in Libyan museums and has a strong relationship with the Society for Libyan Studies in the UK and worked with experts to identify the artefact.
Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said: “An important part of the museum’s work on cultural heritage involves our close partnership with law enforcement agencies concerned with illicit trafficking. This case is another good example of the benefits of all parties working together to combat looting and protect cultural heritage.”