The U.S. is now returning thousands of ancient artifacts to Iraq that were looted and then smuggled out of the country during the unrest there in the early 2000s.
Speaking at a press conference in Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein announced that 17,000 smuggled artifacts had already been returned by the U.S., some of which date back 4,000 years.
Tens of thousands of antiquities essentially disappeared from the country following the toppling of leader Saddam Hussein, with many more smuggled out by the Islamic State (ISIS) when they held a third of Iraq in the mid-2010s.
American authorities recovering the artifacts reached an agreement with Iraq to return the items that have been seized from American dealers and museums.
One of the most important artifacts involved is the Gilgamesh tablet, which will be returned to Iraqi authorities within the next month once legal procedures have been finalized. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a 3,500-year-old Sumerian tale from ancient Mesopotamia, is said to be one of the world’s very first works of literature and is considered the second-oldest surviving religious text.
Some of the other artifacts that are being return include tablets with cuneiform scripts inscribed on them. Around 15,000 priceless artifacts were reportedly taken from the National Museum of Iraq after museum staff was evacuated. The estimated revenue from the sale of these stolen artifacts is estimated at $10 to $20 million each year. Many of these objects have been appearing in the antiquities market, some with sketchy claims of provenance.
A statement from the U.S. Department of Justice explained how the Gilgamesh tablet made its way into the country: “The antiquities dealer and a US cuneiform expert shipped the tablet into the United States by international post without declaring the contents as required. After the tablet was imported and cleaned, experts in cuneiform recognized it as bearing a portion of the Gilgamesh Epic. The tablet measures approximately 6 inches by 5 inches [15 x 12 centimeters] and is written in the Akkadian language.”
Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green reportedly purchased thousands of these items, including the Dream of Gilgamesh tablet, on behalf of the Museum of the Bible. Many of the characters and story elements in the tablets bear strong parallels to stories found in the Old Testament, particularly the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Noah’s ark and the great flood. The tablet was seized in 2019, and a U.S. District Court ordered Hobby Lobby to forfeit the item so it could be returned to Iraq.
Hobby Lobby has filed a suit against Christie’s for selling the tablet to them; Christie’s has denied any knowledge of the object’s illegal importation.
Thousands of the country’s artifacts remain missing. Conflict and looting have destroyed much of Iraq’s ancient heritage, with UNESCO describing ISIS’s wreckage and raiding of historical sites as being on an “industrial” scale. The loot was used to fund the terrorists’ operations via a smuggling network.
Iraqi authorities have been working together with international agencies to find and return archaeological relics to preserve their heritage.
Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Jacquelyn M. Kasulis said: “This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin.”
In addition to the 17,321 items that have been recovered from the U.S. so far, many others have been returned from countries like the Netherlands, Italy and Japan. According to an Iraqi press release, a further 1,300 artifacts were sent back by Jordan. Last year, the UK announced the country would be returning a 4,000-year-old Sumerian plaque stolen from Iraq after the British Museum found the object being sold on an online action site.
The objects were returned on board a flight of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who had been in Washington, D.C. to meet with President Biden.
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