Iraq Takes Back 17,000 Looted Artifacts, Biggest Return Ever


ERBIL, Iraq — When the Iraqi prime minister’s plane landed in Baghdad last week after an official visit to the United States, its cargo included 17,000 archaeological artifacts returned by a leading museum and an Ivy League university. antiques.

On Tuesday, plywood crates containing thousands of clay tablets and seals from Mesopotamia, home to the world’s oldest civilizations, were piled next to a table displaying several artifacts as Iraq’s Ministry of Culture put its cultural treasures under surveillance.

The repatriation of so many items completes a remarkable chapter in the story of a country so devastated by decades of conflict and war that it was dug up and sold abroad by historic antique thieves. exhibited in museums of other countries. And it is a triumph of countries’ global efforts to pressure Western institutions to return culturally vital artifacts. return the famous Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.

“This is not just about the thousands of tablets returning to Iraq, it’s about the Iraqi people,” Iraqi Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities Hassan Nadhem said in a phone call. “By strengthening and supporting Iraqi identity in these difficult times, it not only restores the tablets but also restores the trust of the Iraqi people.”

The institution holding nearly 12,000 items was the Bible Museum, a four-year-old Washington museum founded and funded by the Christian evangelical family that owns the Hobby Lobby craft store chain. The inclusion of artifacts from Ancient Mesopotamia was intended to provide context for Old Testament events.

Four years ago, the US Department of Justice fined Hobby Lobby $3 million for not performing due diligence in purchasing more than 5,000 works; some of these artifacts were among those returned to Iraq last week. The Hobby Lobby agreed to tighten purchase procedures as part of the government litigation, and the museum later found thousands more suspicious artifacts after it began voluntarily perusing its collection.

More than 5,000 of the other items returned last week were held by Cornell University. Hailing from a previously unknown Sumerian city of Garsana, this collection was donated to the university in 2000 by an American collector. Partly because the city was unknown, there were widespread suspicions by archaeologists that it came from a looted archaeological site in southern Iraq.

The conglomerates highlight a thriving market in stolen antiques and highlight the plight of countries like Iraq, which has been subjected to antique looting for three decades. Widespread looting of unexcavated areas occurred when government forces lost control of parts of southern Iraq following the First Gulf War in 1991. And thefts on an industrial scale continued amid a security vacuum after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Most of the returned clay tablets and seals Irisagrig, a lost ancient city. Only then did the existence of the city become known. tablets that talk about it They were seized on the Jordanian border in 2003, while thousands of them turned up in international antiques markets.

Southern Iraq, part of ancient Mesopotamia, contains thousands of unexcavated archaeological sites between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where the world’s first known civilizations began. Known as the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, Babylon and Ur flourished there, and it is here that writing, astronomy, and the first known laws of law emerged.

Hobby Lobby’s group of repatriated objects does not include the best-known ones he obtained from Mesopotamia: a piece of clay tablet about 3,500 years old inscribed with a fragment of the Gilgamesh epic, an ancient epic mentioning the Great Flood and the Garden. Eden, which came centuries before the Old Testament.

NS The Ministry of Justice describing this In 2019, the tablet was confiscated as “stolen Iraqi property”. This is the only Hobby Lobby artifact on display at the Bible Museum among those returned to Iraq.

Hobby Lobby, which sued Christie’s auction house to recover the $1.6 million it paid for the piece at a private sale in London, withdrew its appeals to return the piece in July. The piece, now in a federal warehouse in Brooklyn, is expected to be delivered to Iraq in a few weeks.

The approximately 6-inch x 5-inch tablet was first offered for sale by a Jordanian antiques dealer in London in 2001. It changed hands several times afterward, and in 2014 Christie’s brokered an exclusive sale to Hobby Lobby with documents later found. be wrong. NS The Justice Department said a seller warned that its source will not be based on scrutiny by a public auction. Christie’s said it didn’t know the documents were forged.

Steve Green, president of the Hobby Lobby, he said he didn’t know anything about collecting he said when he started the museum and was misled by unscrupulous sellers.

Some artifacts were purchased in up to 2,000 pieces, as described by the current director of the museum. paperwork so obscure that the museum didn’t know what it was getting.

Most of the objects purchased for the museum remain a mystery as they have not been studied. The only work he has kept from the collection, a cuneiform brick It has a clear origin, from a temple during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. The museum says export documents from the family that donated it show it was legally taken to the United States from Iraq in the 1920s.

But the artifacts returned by Cornell have been widely studied by the scientists who published their findings. Many archaeologists criticize any research into potentially looted objects, saying it not only deprives countries of origin of the opportunity to examine the objects themselves, but also helps fuel the trade in looted antiquities by increasing black market prices for similar items.

“We missed this great opportunity to study our tablets, our heritage,” said culture minister Mr. Nadhem, who said Cornell did not consult Iraq in his research on the tablets. “We have a kind of bitterness in our mouths.”

Cornell, who gave little information about return of the collection, said that he returned 5,381 clay tablets to Iraq. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded the university return thousands of ancient tablets It is believed to have been looted from the country in the 1990s, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Asked about the returned artifacts, Cornell issued a statement thanking the Iraqi government “for their partnership as we continue to do important work to preserve these important artifacts for future generations.” He also said he had published studies on the tablets for “the cultural benefits of the Republic of Iraq.”

Returned Hobby Lobby artifacts contain thousands of pieces seized by the US government It formed the basis for the fine imposed on the company by the Ministry of Justice in 2011. These included cuneiform tablets, ancient cylinder seals, and clay seal impressions known as bullae.

According to the Ministry of Justice, most of the shipments were marked as Turkish “ceramic tiles” and were sent from dealers in the United Arab Emirates to Hobby Lobby and two corporate affiliates. Others from Israel falsely declared Israel as their country of origin.

The Bible Museum counted more than 8,000 when it began examining the source of every item in its collection to avoid scandals caused by Hobby Lobby purchases. The museum’s most high-profile acquisitions, Pseudo fragments of the Dead Sea Scrollsturned out to be fake.

When it turned out that he could not verify the origin of the Mesopotamian artifacts shortly after the museum opened, he packed them for return.

“For the most part, its contents are unknown,” said Jeffrey Kloha, director of collections at the museum, which joined after the pieces were received. he was before aforementioned It turned out that more than 5 percent of the artifacts that Hobby Lobby bought and that were said to come from ancient Mesopotamia were counterfeit.

Mr Kloha said now, with the return of Iraqis and other previously questionable holdings, the museum has shifted its focus to much more net-origin local acquisitions, including ancient Bibles.

Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Arts, Museums and Heritage Law at DePaul University in Chicago, said it was difficult to assess the return from an archaeological point of view because the importance of the returned Iraqi artifacts is unknown.

But he said the move has a symbolic value.

“It was also an important step for the museum to proactively go through and say, ‘OK, we can’t really identify where this thing came from,'” he said. “Other museums should do the same.”


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