A triumph in Iraq's fight against cultural thieves

With help from western prosecutors, there is hope for restoring Middle Eastern heritage

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet was recently returned from the US to Iraq, after having been stolen from the country's national museum in 1991. EPA
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The epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world's oldest recorded stories, tells a tale of creating order from chaos. Its eponymous hero, the king of Uruk, in what is now Iraq, embarks on a long journey to make his mark on the world by conquering death. In the end, he realises death is inescapable, but that a person can ensure order in the world by leaving behind an enduring legacy.

For Gilgamesh, that legacy was the city walls of Uruk, parts of which, nearly 5,000 years later, are still intact. For the epic's anonymous author, who lived more than 3,000 years ago, it is the series of tablets on which the story was recorded. A dozen of these were unearthed in a mid-19th century excavation near the Iraqi city of Mosul. In the decades since, they have undertaken a difficult journey of their own, having been dispersed throughout the world by various archaeologists, antiquarians, looters and traffickers.

Reuniting the tablets with one another and with their homeland, Iraq, has in itself proved to be a matter of creating order from chaos. While such "cultural property" is far older than other asset classes, the laws governing its trafficking and sale, as well as enforcement mechanisms, are far less developed than, say, money or modern art.

This explains why one of the Gilgamesh tablets, known as the Dream Tablet, was only this week returned to Iraq, having been stolen from there in 1991 and subsequently trafficked to the US. It was purchased for $1.7 million by a crafts company, Hobby Lobby, whose owner displayed it at a museum he built in Washington. It was confiscated by US authorities after an investigation in 2019.

A large body of international conventions (the best known being the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1970 Unesco Convention) govern the protection of cultural property. But by and large, the conventions make implementation a matter for individual countries, who rarely share the same priorities. The result is an uneven patchwork of legislation and enforcement that creates plenty of gaps for traffickers to exploit.

An uneven patchwork of legislation and enforcement creates gaps for traffickers to exploit

And so the illicit antiquities trade in the Middle East has exploded in recent decades. One issue is that many artefacts were looted before the relevant laws were created. Two years ago, Christies, an auction house, sold a sculpture of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun for more than $6m, even as Egyptian authorities complained that it had been stolen. The sale went ahead on the grounds that the sculpture was, so to speak, ancient history, because it was removed from Egypt before the Unesco Convention was adopted.

Where laws are limited, the only answer is to reform the culture around such artefacts. Progress is being made on this front; the past year has seen a host of prominent museums and universities in the West return artefacts to various African countries, amid growing pressure from the public.

But another issue is that not enough of the focus is on buyers. In most countries, the heaviest penalty a buyer of stolen artefacts incurs is that they are forced to give them back. Here, prosecutors have more scope, and in the US, at least, they are starting to make use of it. While Hobby Lobby and others have been slapped with huge fines, one collector, hedge fund tycoon Michael Steinhardt, was forced to surrender $70m of looted antiquities, and subsequently banned for life from acquiring any more historical artefacts. The ban is the first of its kind, and may set a new precedent for similar cases elsewhere.

The payoff for tackling crimes involving cultural property is invaluable. Upon the Dream Tablet's return to Iraq, where it is now displayed proudly at the country's National Museum, Audrey Azoulay, Unesco's director-general, said that its repatriation sends a message to criminals, but also allows "the Iraqi people to reconnect with a page in their history". It is a tale of the triumph of legacy over self-interest worthy of Gilgamesh himself.

Published: December 10, 2021, 3:00 AM