The US announces the return of Iraqi artifacts stolen from the museum during the 2003 invasion

On Wednesday, Manhattan Attorneys said U.S. investigators were returning seven Mesopotamian and Neo-Babylonian seals to Iraq. The seals are a small part of the 15,000 artifacts stolen from the Iraq Museum after that country’s invasion in 2003.

In March 2021, one of the seals was put up for sale in an online auction, prompting the prosecutor’s office to launch an investigation into the object’s provenance and provenance. The consignor of the stamp soon turned out to be in possession of six other seals, which were purchased shortly after the Iraq Museum was looted. The seals lacked any documentation that would show they had entered the art market before 2003.

Instead, the pieces were found to have been smuggled into the United States, where they were purchased by a private collector through various galleries and online auctions between 2004 and 2009.

A U.S. tank takes position in front of the looted Iraqi National Museum April 16, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq.  US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied blame for soldiers who reportedly watched as priceless treasures were looted from the museum, saying so in a news conference "it's hard to stop"

A U.S. tank takes position in front of the looted Iraqi National Museum April 16, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied blame for soldiers who reportedly watched as priceless treasures were looted from the museum, saying in a news conference that “it’s hard to stop”.
(Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)

The seven objects consist of three stamp seals and four cylinder seals from the period between Mesopotamia (2700-2500 BC) and Neo-Babylonia (612-539 BC). The seals were used to make imprints on wet clay, with the cylinder seals being rolled onto the two-dimensional surface.

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The objects are carved with images of gods, human figures, animals and other scenes of worship. Each unique seal served as a personal signature to guarantee the authenticity of an individual or company.

Douglas Cohen, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s office, told The Art Newspaper that the tip came from a whistleblower who had read Thieves of Baghdad (2005), a book by Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos about his experiences tracking down stolen antiques.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) worked with the Manhattan Attorney’s Office to return the seals.

“These items were looted by thieves who took advantage of the turmoil of war for profit without regard to their cultural value,” said Ivan J. Arvelo, HSI’s New York Special Agent in Charge. “These artifacts…were an important part of everyday life in the ancient world. Now they will return to their rightful homeland.”

At the time of the invasion, the looting of the Iraq Museum’s collection became the subject of debate about Washington’s ability to maintain order in Iraq while Saddam Hussein’s police and military collapsed.

US troops, then the only force in the city, were heavily criticized for failing to protect the museum’s treasures and other cultural facilities such as the National Library and the Saddam Art Center, a museum of modern Iraqi art.

Others claimed US troops had no mandate to act from Washington.

When asked to comment on the looting, then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said, “Something’s happening … and it’s messy and liberty is messy and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and.” to do bad things.”

Two U.S. Soldiers from the 1st Division, 2nd Bridage, Texas, visit the Iraq Museum in Baghdad September 10, 2003.

Two U.S. Soldiers from the 1st Division, 2nd Bridage, Texas, visit the Iraq Museum in Baghdad September 10, 2003.
(Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images)

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Since 2015, when the museum reopened to the public, the debate has receded and Iraqi officials have tried to move forward.

A significant moment in Iraq’s repatriation efforts came in August 2021, when 17,000 artifacts were returned from across Iraq, including those owned by the family that owns Hobby Lobby chain craft stores and Cornell University.

Dr. Salwan Sinjari, Iraqi US Charge d’Affaires, praised the findings of the latest investigation.

“I am grateful for the work of the Manhattan Attorney’s Office in their efforts to bring these precious historical antiquities back to Iraq,” Sinjari said. “These pieces belong to Iraq – and belong to Iraq – and now they will help the Iraqi people better understand and appreciate our own history and culture with this connection to the past. This is another example of the longstanding cooperation, friendship and partnership between Iraq and the United States.”

Head of a woman from Uruk, Baghdad Museum;  also known as the "Sumerian Mona Lisa."

Head of a woman from Uruk, Baghdad Museum; also known as the “Sumerian Mona Lisa”.
(Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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While some treasures of the museum’s collection have been returned, such as the “Sumerian Mona Lisa,” a 5,000-year-old mask, thousands remain to be recovered.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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