Iraq retrieves 17,000 looted artefacts, largest repatriation 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 major museum and an Ivy League university, which are now part of the looted Iraqi Was involved in the largest repatriation till date. Antiquities.

On Tuesday, thousands of clay tablets and seals in plywood boxes – fragments from Mesopotamia, the site of the world’s oldest civilizations – were placed next to a table displaying some of the artifacts as the Iraqi Culture Ministry took custody of the cultural treasure. was taken in.

The repatriation of so many items is a remarkable chapter in the story of a country so devastated by decades of conflict and war that its history was thrown out of the ground by antiquity thieves and sold abroad, Ending up on display in museums in other countries. And it is a victory in a global effort by countries to pressure Western institutions to return culturally significant artifacts, such as pushing Repatriate famous Benin bronze to Nigeria.

“It’s not just about the thousands of bullets re-entering Iraq – it’s about the Iraqi people,” Iraqi Culture, Tourism and Antiquities Minister Hassan Nadeem said in a telephone interview. “It not only restores the bullets, but the faith of the Iraqi people by enhancing and supporting the Iraqi identity in these difficult times.”

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

Four years ago, the US Justice Department fined Hobby Lobby $3 million for failing to do due diligence in acquiring more than 5,000 artifacts; Some of those artifacts were from those who returned to Iraq last week. Hobby Lobby agreed as part of a government lawsuit to tighten its acquisition procedures, and the museum later found thousands more suspicious artifacts after launching a voluntary review of its collection.

Of the other pieces that were returned last week, more than 5,000 were with Cornell University. This collection from Garsana, a previously unknown Sumerian city, was donated to the university by an American collector in 2000. Partly because the city was unknown, it was widely suspected by archaeologists to have come from a looted archaeological site in the south of Iraq.

The holdings underscore a thriving market in stolen antiquities and highlight the plight of countries such as Iraq, which has been subject to looting of antiquities for three decades. After the first Gulf War, widespread looting occurred at unexplored sites when government forces lost control of parts of southern Iraq in 1991. And industrial-scale piracy continued in the midst of a security vacuum after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Returned are several clay tablets and seals. Irisgrig, a lost ancient city. The existence of the city came to be known only when pills that refer to In 2003, thousands were confiscated along the Jordanian border, while thousands were exposed in international antiquities 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. Babylon and Ur, the reputed birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, flourished there and the first known codes of writing, astronomy, and law originated.

Hobby Lobby’s batch of repatriated items does not include what was most famous about its holdings from Mesopotamia: a clay tablet fragment about 3,500 years old, inscribed with a fragment from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a There is an ancient saga which mentions the Great Flood and the Garden. Eden which dates back many centuries to the Old Testament.

NS Department of Justice, which describes it As “stolen Iraqi property”, the tablet was confiscated in 2019. It is the only Hobby Lobby artifact among those returned to Iraq to be displayed in the Museum of the Bible.

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

The tablet, approximately 6 inches by 5 inches, was first offered for sale in 2001 by a Jordanian antiques dealer in London. It changed hands several times, and in 2014 Christie’s brokered a private sale to Hobby Lobby, which contained documents found later. be a liar NS The Justice Department said that a dealer had given a warning That the origins would not face the scrutiny of a public auction. Christie has said she didn’t know the documents were fake.

Hobby Lobby President Steve Green Said he knew nothing about collecting When he started the museum and he was misled by unscrupulous dealers.

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

Since most of the items purchased for the museum were not studied, they remain a mystery. The only artwork he has kept from the collection, a cuneiform-hammered brick From a temple in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, there is a clear origin. The museum says export papers from the family who donated it show that it was legally taken from Iraq to the United States in the 1920s.

But the artifacts returned by Cornell have been widely studied by the scholars 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 study the items, but also increases the black market value for similar items to be looted. Helps in promoting the trade of antiques.

“We missed this great opportunity to study our tablets, our heritage,” said the Minister of Culture, Mr. Nadem, who said that Cornell had not consulted Iraq on his research of the tablets. “It was kind of in our mouth. There is bitterness.”

Cornell, which has revealed little about return of its collectionSaid that it had sent back 5,381 clay tablets to Iraq. In 2013, the US Department of Justice urged the university to give back thousands of ancient pills 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 gave a statement thanking the Iraqi government “for their partnership as we continue the important work of preserving these important artifacts for future generations to study.” It also said that it had published studies about the pills for “cultural benefit to the Republic of Iraq”.

Hobby Lobby artifacts returned include thousands of pieces seized by the US government In 2011, that became the basis for the Justice Department’s fines against the company. These included traces of cuneiform tablets, ancient cylinder seals and clay seals known as bullae.

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

The Museum of the Bible counted more than 8,000 others when it began reviewing the provenance of each item in its collection in an effort to recover from the scandals that resulted from the acquisition of Hobby Lobby. The museum’s highest profile acquisition, Alleged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it turned out to be a fraud.

When it became clear shortly after the museum’s opening that it could not verify the provenance of Mesopotamian artifacts, it packaged them for return.

“By large, the material is pretty much unknown,” said Jeffrey Kloha, director of the museum’s collections, who joined after the pieces were acquired. they first Said More than 5 percent of artifacts purchased by Hobby Lobby, which were said to be from ancient Mesopotamia, are counterfeit.

Now, with the return of Iraqi and, previously, other questionable holdings, the museum has turned its attention to domestic acquisitions that have very clear origins, including the early Bible, Mr. Kloha said.

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

But he said the move has symbolic significance.

“I think the fact that the museum constantly went and said, ‘Well, we can’t really establish where this stuff came from,’ was also an important step,” she said. Museums should do the same.”

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