Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Newark Connection

The recent report of the return of antiquities to Iraq reminded me of an old article about where some of the artefacts which have only now gone back to Iraq were seized. This raises a number of questions about the way some antiquity dealers conduct their trade. The ICE press release of September 15, 2008, "ICE returns more than 1,000 artifacts to Iraq: Iraq Embassy receives a cache of significant cultural items illegally imported to U.S." deals mainly with items seized in 2001-2003 (so probably deriving from post-sanctions, but pre-invasion looting).

1) In 2001, ICE agents detained a commercial delivery of 300 Cuneiform clay tablets, 45 moulded terracotta tablets, eight cylinder seals and nine amulets with animals of the Old Babylonian Period apparently imported by "a Newark, N.J., antiquities gallery". The customs entry documents said they were from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

2) In 2003, another US antiquity dealer had attempted to import twelve foundation cones from Lagash (Southeast Iraq) from a temple built by Gudea, ruler of Lagash. On the customs entry document it said they had come from Syria.

3) Also in 2003,
five Federal Express packages containing glass bottles, coins, copper knives, spear heads, necklaces, cylinder seals, a bronze stick and set of decorative armor were imported by another Newark, N.J., gallery. ICE New York agents determined, with the help of experts, that the items, which were originally declared to be of British origin, were all, except for the armor, from Iraq. In total, 671 items were seized (406 glass bottles, 5 bronze spear heads, 6 bronze daggers, 87 cylinder seals, 2 metal sculptures, 1 metal axe head, 120 beaded necklaces, 1 large bronze spear/sword, 10 metal daggers, 30 antique coins, 2 bronze figurines, 1 small glass plate) and determined to be from various locations throughout Iraq.

Possibly this is connected with a British investigation reported by the BBC in November 2003: “A number of men were arrested, including one at a central London gallery. The men were arrested in connection with allegations of handling stolen goods - one of them was said to be a 76-year-old man. He is believed to be a British passport holder of Iranian descent", Scotland Yard told the BBC". It is not known what happened to these individuals.

Though we are told by the ICE next to nothing about the three US dealers involved in these old cases, a decade ago there were only a limited number of antiquities dealers in this region of New York who would be importing antiquities like this in bulk. I leave it up to readers to try and guess who they might have been and whether (and how) they are still in business.

It is interesting to note that an press release of 2008 is able only to report four cases over the preceding seven years, and two years later self-gratulatory announcements are being made about exactly the same artefacts 9which have finally ended up back in Iraq). Does this mean that US customs are so jolly efficient that no other US dealers are attempting to import antiquities at all, or does it mean that the US customs are only detecting a very small number of misdescribed (for that is what is involved in all these cases) items passing through US frontiers? And if sombody like the US cannot stop illicit objects passing through its borders, what might we say of other countries?

vignette: customs inspection.

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