Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Another Batch of Iraqi Artefacts Returned from US

The New York Times (Steven Lee Myers: " Iraqi Treasures Return, but Questions Remain" September 7, 2010) reported the return of hundreds of looted antiquities that had ended up in the United States which had arrived in Baghdad on Monday, packed in wooden crates, aboard a specially chartered aircraft. Qahtan al-Jibourithe state minister of tourism and antiquities and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari publicly signed documents transferring custody of the to the National Museum at a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where the newly-arrived artefacts were on display:
The latest trove reflects not only a history dating from the world’s oldest civilizations but also a more recent and tortured history of war, looting and international smuggling that began under Saddam Hussein, accelerated after the American occupation and continues at archaeological sites to this day. The returned items include a 4,400-year-old statue of King Entemena of Lagash looted from the National Museum here after the American invasion in 2003; an even older pair of gold earrings from Nimrud stolen in the 1990s and seized before an auction at Christie’s in New York last December; and 362 cuneiform clay tablets smuggled out of Iraq that were seized by the American authorities in 2001 and were being stored in the World Trade Center when it was destroyed.
The newspaper also dwelt on another item: a chrome-plated AK-47 with a pearl grip and an engraving of Saddam Hussein, taken by an American soldier as booty and displayed at the headquarters of the Third Stryker Brigade of the Second Infantry Divisionat Fort Lewis, Washington state ("Kitsch, certainly, but priceless in its own way"). The assault rifle had been taken out of Iraq “legally via official Army channels with the intent of placing it in a military museum as a war trophy”. It was however returned after the aides of the Iraqi ambassador to the USA Samir Sumaidaie [who has worked fervently with American law enforcement officials in recent years to track down loot that had found its way into the United States] read about it in a local newspaper report.
The United States has returned 1,046 antiquities since 2003, when looters ransacked buildings across Iraq, including its museums, according to the American Embassy here. For all the international outrage the looting stirred toward the United States and its allies, many of the items were smuggled out of the country before the invasion, often with the connivance of officials in Saddam Hussein’s government, according to archaeological officials here. They have been tracked and seized by the F.B.I., the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and other law enforcement agencies, often working on tips from experts and officials with the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, which stored many of them at its building on Massachusetts Avenue for safekeeping as Iraq remained engulfed in violence.

Only a handful of the items returned on Tuesday once belonged to the National Museum. The most prominent is the statue of King Entemena, the oldest known representation of a monarch from the ancient civilizations that once thrived in Mesopotamia. Carved from black diorite, it is 30 inches tall and headless, and inscribed with cuneiform that says it was placed in a temple in Ur, in what is now southern Iraq, to please the god Enlil. It weighs 330 pounds but disappeared from the museum during the looting, only to be seized in a 2006 sting when someone in Syria tried to sell it to an art dealer in New York.

Another Sumerian sculpture, a bronze depicting a king named Shulgi, had been shipped by Federal Express from a London dealer to a collector in Connecticut, but was seized at Newark Liberty International Airport. Many such pieces are items that Iraq never knew it had lost.
As I discussed earlier on this blog, the dealer who shopped the sellers of the Entemena statue is reported elsewhere to have been one of the Aboutaam brothers (Hicham Aboutaam?). The newspaper further reports:
Iraq has 12,000 known archaeological sites where Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Persian cities — and later Islamic cities — once stood. Many are unprotected, and have been badly looted for years, especially during the bloodiest years of war in 2006 and 2007. A special police force created in 2008 has yet to fill its ranks, mired at its inception by the government’s bureaucracy and a lack of support for cultural preservation. The National Museum, which officially reopened last year though many of its galleries remain closed and in disrepair, has recovered roughly half of 15,000 pieces that were looted from its collection. All told, Iraqi officials say they have confiscated and returned to government property more than 30,000 antiquities and artworks since 2003, from inside and outside Iraq. The museum can hold only a fraction of those. “We can make 15 museums like the one we had,” its deputy director, Muhsin Hassan Ali, said on Tuesday.

See the nice National Geographic Photo Gallery including the shiny gun.

There is also a good post by Derek Fincham on this with video.

For more aspects of this story, see the post below.

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