Saturday 21 February 2009

Stolen Iraqi artefacts still on the move

"Peru appears to be the farthest that purloined Iraqi treasures have traveled. Most other recovered items have come from neighboring countries. More than 2,500 artifacts have returned to Iraq from Jordan, along with more than 760 from Syria. Many stolen items have made it to further west. Thirteen pieces were found in Italy; and at least another dozen have surfaced in the United States, including a large statue of a Sumerian king".
(Mark Kukis Iraq's Ancient Treasures Lost and Found Time Feb. 19, 2009). He forgot the ones that are reported to have ended up in London in 2003. Arrests were apparently made, but I do not recall any mention of charges. I would have expected to see more reports of material being stopped by customs officials in the Gulf States.

It really is difficult to believe that only "a dozen" items wandered west across the Atlantic since 2003 and all twelve of them were stopped by US customs (the ones stopped at Lima airport were reported to have been found in the luggage of a US citizen going to the US). In 2008, the USA returned more than a thousand illegally exported items from Iraq that had been seized before the 2003 looting ("No criminal charges have been filed at this time in any of these investigations").

The "statue" referred to by Mark Kukis is presumably the Entemena one excavated in Ur. It is perhaps not entirely accurate to say it was recovered "in the United States", it seems to have got there through a "sting" operation in which one of the Aboutaam brothers seems to have played a positive role.

["Last year, federal prosecutors in New York contacted Hicham Aboutaam and expressed interest in trying to recover the statue, said one person with knowledge of those events. Mr. Aboutaam agreed to help. Subsequently, he or his brother made contact with an Iraqi expatriate businessman now living in Europe. Soon, that businessman, who was referred to as the broker, became the pivotal figure in securing the statue. Little is known about the businessman other than that he is involved in construction. But he began to shuttle among Iraq, Syria and other countries to make contact with those holding the statue and to negotiate its turnover. It was not known whether money had been paid to those holding the statue or whether promises had been made."]

Interestingly enough, though there was a lot of fanfare about the return of the object itself to the Iraqis in 2006, I do not recall seeing anything about the persons involved in its smuggling or offering for sale being apprehended or punished. This seems to be a general pattern, I get the impression from reading these accounts that the actions undertaken were "object-centred", rather than "preservation-centred", aimed at actually catching the smugglers and breaking the chain of the market in illicit antiquities.

See also: Barry Meir and James Glanz, 'U.S. Helps Recover Statue and Gives It Back to Iraqis' New York Times July 26th 2006.

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