Iraq Reclaims 17,000 Looted Artifacts, Its Biggest-Ever Repatriation

Iraq Reclaims 17,000 Looted Artifacts, Its Biggest-Ever Repatriation
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Iraq Reclaims 17,000 Looted Artifacts, Its Biggest-Ever Repatriation

Iraq Reclaims 17,000 Looted Artifacts, Its Biggest-Ever Repatriation

ERBIL, Iraq – When the Iraqi Prime Minister’s plane touched down in Baghdad last week after an official visit to the United States, its shipment included 17,000 archaeological items returned by a leading museum and Ivy League university as part of the largest ever repatriation of looted Iraqis. antiques.

On Tuesday, plywood crates containing thousands of clay tablets and seals – coins from Mesopotamia, site of the world’s first civilizations – were stacked next to a table displaying some of the artifacts as the Iraqi ministry of Culture took care of cultural treasures.

The repatriation of so many artifacts completes a remarkable chapter in the history of a country so ravaged by decades of conflict and war that its very history has been torn from the ground by antiquity thieves and sold abroad. , to finish exhibited in other countries. museums. And it’s a victory in a global effort by countries to pressure Western institutions to return culturally vital artifacts, like the push to repatriate famous bronzes from Benin to Nigeria.

“It’s not just about thousands of tablets coming back to Iraq, it’s about the Iraqi people,” Hassan Nadhem, Iraqi Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, said in a telephone interview. . “It not only restores the tablets, but the confidence of the Iraqi people by strengthening and sustaining the Iraqi identity in these difficult times.”

The institution that held around 12,000 objects was the Museum of the Bible, a four-year-old Washington museum founded and funded by the Evangelical Christian family that owns the Hobby Lobby craft chain. The addition of artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia was intended to provide context for the events of the Old Testament.

Four years ago, the US Department of Justice fined Hobby Lobby $ 3 million for failing to exercise due diligence in its acquisitions of more than 5,000 artifacts; some of these artifacts were among those returned to Iraq last week. Hobby Lobby agreed as part of the government’s lawsuit to tighten up its acquisition procedures, and the museum found thousands of other suspicious artifacts after it later launched a voluntary review of its collection.

More than 5,000 of the other coins returned last week had been held by Cornell University. This collection from a hitherto unknown Sumarian city of Garsana was donated to the university in 2000 by an American collector. Partly because the city was unknown, archaeologists widely suspected it came from a looted archaeological site in southern Iraq.

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The holdings highlight a thriving market for stolen antiques and highlight the plight of countries like Iraq, which has been subjected to three decades of antiquity looting. When government forces lost control of parts of southern Iraq in 1991, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, widespread looting took place at unexcavated sites. And industrial-scale thefts continued in a security vacuum after the US-led invasion in 2003.

Most of the clay tablets and returned seals come from Irisagrig, an ancient lost city. The city’s existence only became known when tablets mentioning it were seized at the Jordanian border in 2003, while thousands more surfaced in international antique markets.

Southern Iraq, part of ancient Mesopotamia, contains thousands of unexcavated archaeological sites between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where the world’s earliest known civilizations began. Babylon and Ur, the famous birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, flourished there, and it was there that scripture, astronomy, and the first known code of law were born.

Hobby Lobby’s repatriated artifact bundle does not include what had been best known of its holdings in Mesopotamia: an approximately 3,500-year-old clay tablet fragment bearing a fragment of the epic of Gilgamesh, a ancient saga mentioning the Great Flood and the Garden of Eden which predates the Old Testament by several centuries.

The Justice Department, which describes it as “stolen Iraqi property,” seized the tablet in 2019. It is the only Hobby Lobby artifact among those returned to Iraq to have been exhibited at the Bible Museum.

Hobby Lobby, which is suing auction house Christie’s to recover the $ 1.6 million it paid for the fragment at a private sale in London, withdrew its objections upon its return in July. Now in a federal warehouse in Brooklyn, the part is expected to be returned to Iraq in a few weeks.

The tablet, approximately 6 inches by 5 inches, was first offered for sale by a Jordanian antique dealer in London in 2001. It then changed hands several times, and in 2014, Christie’s negotiated a private sale. to Hobby Lobby with documents later found to be false. The Justice Department said a merchant warned the provenance would not stand up to scrutiny at a public auction. Christie’s said she was unaware the documents were fake.

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Hobby Lobby chairman Steve Green said he knew nothing about the collection when he set up the museum and had been misled by unscrupulous dealers.

Some of the artefacts were purchased in lots of up to 2,000 pieces with what the current museum director described as paperwork so vague the museum didn’t know what it was getting.

Because most of the items purchased for the museum have not been studied, they remain a mystery. The only artifact he has preserved from the collection, a brick with a wedge-shaped inscription from a temple from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, has a clear provenance. The museum says the family’s export papers that gave him show he was legally taken from Iraq to the United States in the 1920s.

But the artifacts returned by Cornell have been widely studied by the researchers who published their findings. Many archaeologists criticize any research on potentially looted artefacts, saying it not only deprives the countries of origin of the opportunity to study the artefacts themselves, but also helps fuel the trade in looted antiques by raising the prices of the item. black market for similar items.

“We missed this great opportunity to study our tablets, our heritage,” said Culture Minister Nadhem, who said Cornell had not consulted Iraq on his research on the tablets. “It’s kind of bitterness in our mouth.”

Cornell, who has revealed little about the return of his collection, said he repatriated 5,381 clay tablets to Iraq. In 2013, the US Department of Justice urged the university to return thousands of old tablets that were allegedly looted across the country in the 1990s, according to the Los Angeles Times.

When asked about the returned artifacts, Cornell provided a statement thanking the Iraqi government “for its partnership as we continue the crucial work of preserving these important artifacts for future generations to study.” He also said he published studies on the tablets for “the cultural benefits of the Republic of Iraq”.

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The returned Hobby Lobby artifacts include thousands of pieces seized by the US government in 2011, which became the basis for the Department of Justice’s fine against the company. They included cuneiform tablets, ancient cylindrical seals, and imprints of clay seals known as bubbles.

Most of the shipments, according to the Justice Department, had been marked with Turkish “ceramic tiles” and shipped to Hobby Lobby and two affiliated companies by dealers in the United Arab Emirates. Others of Israel have falsely declared Israel as their country of origin.

The Bible Museum had more than 8,000 more when it began to examine the provenance of every item in its collection in an effort to extricate itself from the scandals resulting from the acquisitions of the Hobby Lobby. The museum’s most prominent acquisitions, purported fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have been found to be forgeries.

When it became clear shortly after the museum opened that he couldn’t verify the provenance of the Mesopotamian artifacts, he packed them up for return.

“To a large extent, the content is pretty much unknown,” said Jeffrey Kloha, the museum’s collections director, who joined after acquiring the pieces. He previously said that more than 5% of the artifacts purchased by Hobby Lobby that are believed to be from ancient Mesopotamia are fake.

Now, with the return of Iraq and, previously, other suspicious possessions, the museum has focused on domestic acquisitions with a much clearer provenance, including early Bibles, Mr. Kloha said.

Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University in Chicago, said that the significance of the returned Iraqi artifacts was unknown, making it difficult to assess the repatriation in archaeological terms.

But she said the movement had symbolic value.

“I think the fact that the museum went proactively and said, ‘OK, we really can’t establish where this stuff is coming from,’ that was also a big step,” she said. . “Other museums should do the same.”

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