The marble sculpture of a young woman’s head  measures 19 centimetres high. Photo /  Switzerland Federal Office of Cultural Affairs

Switzerland has returned a 2,000-year-old marble sculpture of a young woman's head to Libya, 10 years after it was found in a Geneva warehouse, Swiss authorities said.

The 19-centimetre-tall Hellenistic sculpture dates from between the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD, and because of its red patina most likely comes from the archaeological site of Cyrene in eastern Libya, the Swiss federal culture ministry said in a statement.

It was handed over on Tuesday by the head of federal culture office to the Libyan embassy in Bern.

"This culturally significant archaeological find had been confiscated during criminal proceedings in the canton of Geneva," the statement said. "It is tangible evidence of Greek expansion in North Africa."

Illegal excavation

The sculpture was found during a customs inspection in 2013, and prosecutors opened a criminal case three years later, leading to the confiscation of the statue because of "sufficient reason to believe that it had been acquired as part of an illegal excavation".

The investigation was unable to determine where exactly the object had been found or how it ended up in Switzerland.

"Libya and its UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Cyrene are heavily threatened by looting and destruction," the statement said.

Switzerland and Libya, which has been racked by instability since the 2011 overthrow of dictator Moamer Kadhafi, are both parties to a 1970 UNESCO convention on preventing illegal trade in cultural artifacts.