Iraq recovers 3,800 artefacts from US

The return of the artefacts is welcome news in Iraq, which long suffered from theft or damage to its heritage.
Tuesday 08/05/2018
Ancient cuneiform tablets from Iraq that are being returned by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement are seen at the residence of the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States in Washington, on May 2. (AP)
Ancient cuneiform tablets from Iraq that are being returned by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement are seen at the residence of the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States in Washington, on May 2. (AP)

LONDON - US officials returned to Iraq 3,800 ancient artefacts that had been smuggled into the United States and shipped to a nationwide arts and crafts retailer. The items include cylinder seals, clay bullae and tablets with cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing in ancient Mesopotamia.

Many of the tablets were from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date to 2100-1600BC, primarily known as the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods.

Packages of cuneiform tablets were intercepted by customs agents and falsely labelled as tile samples for retailer Hobby Lobby. The company last year agreed to forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artefacts and pay $3 million to settle a civil suit brought by the US government, attributing its purchase of the illegally imported items to naivete.

The US Department of Justice said thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae were smuggled into the United States in packages shipped to the Oklahoma-based company.

US Attorney Richard Donoghue says US officials “are proud to have played a role in removing these pieces of Iraq’s history from the black market of illegally obtained antiquities and restoring them to the Iraqi people.”

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials signed over the artefacts to Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen at his Washington residence, with some of the pieces laid out on a table.

The ceremony was the first US repatriation of cultural property to Iraq since 2015.

These pieces “are very important to us and they should be returned home,” says Yasseen.

“We’ve repatriated more than 3,000 ancient Mesopotamian artefacts to our beloved country and people,” the Iraqi Embassy in Washington said on Twitter.

Since 2008, ICE has returned more than 1,200 items to Iraq, whose cultural property was plundered after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The return of artefacts is welcome news in Iraq, which long suffered from theft or damage to its heritage, most recently at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Bob Murowchick, an assistant professor in archaeology and anthropology at Boston University, said the selling of antiquities has become a major source of revenue for terrorist organisations, including ISIS, and it is vital that collectors ask the right questions to avoid financing terrorism.

“It’s a very formal business in some areas,” Murowchick told the Associated Press. “You collect things because you love them. Sometimes you don’t ask the things that need to be asked.”

Murowchick warned that, regardless of the nature of the sellers, buyers need to be careful.

“Most antiquities are not legally moved,” he said. “This stuff does not miraculously appear. In many, many cases it’s illegally exported.”

Hobby Lobby said it had been acquiring artefacts “consistent with the company’s mission and passion for the Bible” with the goal of preserving them for future generations and sharing them with public institutions and museums.

The company purchased more than 5,500 artefacts, court documents stated. It agreed that if it receives any other antiquities or learns where they are, it must notify the federal government.

Steve Green, the billionaire evangelical Christian who founded Hobby Lobby, is chairman of the Museum of the Bible, which opened last year in Washington.

Hobby Lobby said the seized artefacts were not intended for the museum. It has not said what it planned to do with them.

Justice Department officials said Hobby Lobby’s 2010 purchase of $1.6 million in artefacts through third-party dealers in the Middle East was “fraught with red flags.” They said the company ignored warnings that the items could have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

Hobby Lobby calls itself the largest privately owned arts and crafts retailer in the world with approximately 32,000 employees and operating in 47 states. Hobby Lobby and the Green family drew headlines in 2014 when the US Supreme Court ruled the craft store chain and Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania could refuse to cover contraceptives in their employees’ health insurance due to its owners’ religious beliefs.

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)