US returns treasure trove of antiquities to Iraq

Archaeological artefacts were looted over the past few decades

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The United States has returned to Iraq about 17,000 archaeological treasures dating back 4,000 years and looted in recent decades in an 'unprecedented' restitution of stolen history, the culture minister in Baghdad has announced.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi took the artefacts from ancient Mesopotamia back to Iraq on his aircraft when he returned from Washington on Thursday, where he met US President Joe Biden.

“This is the largest return of antiquities to Iraq,” said Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim, hailing it as “the result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with their embassy in Washington".

Most of the ancient pieces document “commercial exchanges during the Sumerian period”, his ministry said.

Iraq's antiquities were extensively looted during decades of war and insurgency, often by organised crime groups, since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

“It is impossible to quantify the number of pieces that have been stolen from archaeological sites,” Qahtan Al Obaid, director of antiquities and heritage at the Basra Museum, told AFP.

Archaeological sites across the country are severely damaged and neglected, and museums looted, with about 15,000 items stolen from Iraq's only national museum in Baghdad.

“I hope that in the near future we will be able to recover the rest of our goods, especially in Europe,” Mr Nazim said.

'Looted artefacts'

Among the pieces returned to Iraq is a 3,500-year-old clay tablet with a sequence from the epic of Gilgamish, which was once in Washington's Museum of the Bible, the US Department of Justice said in Washington.

It was not immediately clear whether the “Gilgamish Dream Tablet” would be among the 17,000 pieces to be returned this week.

The rare fragment, which recounts a dream sequence from the epic in Akkadian cuneiform script, is one of many ancient artefacts from the Middle East collected by David Green, the billionaire owner of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts outlets.

It was seized by the US Justice Department in 2019, two years after Mr Green opened the museum dedicated to ancient Christian history in downtown Washington.

The tablet was just one of thousands of Iraqi-origin artefacts, mostly 3,000 to 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets and seals, that have been seized from Hobby Lobby and the Bible Museum for repatriation to Iraq.

The Justice Department said the items were plundered in Iraq, and traded illegally by dealers across the region.

According to the Justice Department, Hobby Lobby bought the 15.2 by 12.7-centimetre tablet from a prominent auction house in 2014 for $1.67 million.

It was originally taken illegally to the United States in 2003 by a dealer, who bought it in London from a well-known Jordanian trader of ancient Middle Eastern antiquities.

It was then traded several times with false letters of provenance to assure buyers that it was legally obtained, rather than a product of the underground antiquities trade.

In 2014, Hobby Lobby arranged to buy the tablet in New York, but carried out the transaction in Oklahoma to avoid sales taxes, according to the Justice Department.

The company then donated it to the collection of the Museum of the Bible.

Since the tablet was seized in 2019, the Justice Department pursued formal ownership through forfeiture laws to be able to return it to the rightful owners.

“This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” said acting US attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis.

“This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artefacts,” she said.

Updated: July 31, 2021, 12:20 PM