Thursday 25 February 2010

Mesopotamian Artefacts Seized in the USA, returned to Iraq

In a CNN report (U.S returns 'cultural treasures' to Iraq, Feb 25th 2010)we learn of a few Mesoptamian artefacts that were returned to Iraq at a special ceremony in the Iraqi embassy on Thursday after being seized by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These included archaeological material:
Neo-Assyrian gold earrings, circa 8th-7th century B.C., from a hoard of gold jewelry known as the Treasures of Nimrud. They were discovered in 1988 in a cache under the floor of the Royal Palace of King Ashur-Nasir-Pal II at Nimrud, taken from the excavation site and eventually smuggled out of the country. ICE seized them from Christie's auction house in New York, which had been offering the earrings in an ancient jewelry sale on December 9. The estimated sale price was $45,000 to $65,000. No charges have been filed against the seller or the auction house, an ICE spokeswoman said. [...]
Babylonian clay foundation cone, circa 2100 B.C., that would have been embedded in a temple's foundation. The Sumerian inscription commemorates the rebuilding of Eninnu, the temple of Girsu's city god, Ningirsu. It was intercepted coming into Chicago, Illinois.
A Sumerian bronze foundation cone and a stone tablet with inscriptions on both, circa 2500 B.C. to 1800 B.C. A dealer in London shipped the items to a Connecticut-based collector, and they were imported via Federal Express to the Newark, New Jersey, international airport. The items were declared as coming from Syria, but scholars determined they were of Iraqi origin.
Another object was a Roman coin from A.D. 248-250, which had been left at the Houston Museum of Natural Science by a man who said he was a contractor in Iraq.

Readers of the cultural property blogs will know that it has been a constant claim of US antiquity dealers that none of the material looted in Iraq after the imposition of sanctions and the subsequent invasion has been sold in the USA. Finds like these show that what these claims imply is that due to the current no-quiestions-asked market and the practice of false provenancing and antiquity 'laundering', very few people have been caught in the USA trying to import material or selling it. This is of course not the same thing. It is characteristic of these reports that very few details are given of the circumstances surrounding such seizures. No naming and shaming of smugglers then.
Because of course what is important is not the "repatriation" of these objects, but catching the smugglers and breaking the chains and webs of illegal transactions which lie behind illicit antiquities and through which looting is financed. It would be nice if journalists could take this iodea on board and start questioning officials about their efforts and successes in this. Without this, the rest of their activities basically boils down to a futile exercise in public relations. The news item notes: "People involved in illegal trafficking can be sentenced to up to 20 years in jail". So, how many have been caught and sentenced as a result of US investigations of the traffic in illicit artefacts in the last decade? More to the point, how many have not been caught, how many illicit artefacts have passed through US borders uncontested while US dealers engaged in the no-questions-asked market rub their hands with commercial glee?

UPDATE: Chuck Jones discusses the "murky" passage of the earrings from Iraq to Christies and the ICE.

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