ERBIL, Iraq – When the Iraqi Prime Minister’s plane landed in Baghdad last week after an official visit to the United States, its cargo included 17,000 archaeological artifacts returned from a prominent museum and Ivy League university in the largest repatriation of looted Iraqis to date became antiquities.
On Tuesday, plywood boxes containing thousands of clay tablets and seals – pieces from Mesopotamia, the site of the world’s earliest civilizations – were stacked next to a table that displayed some of the artifacts when the Iraqi Ministry of Culture took the cultural treasures into custody.
The return of so many items rounds off a remarkable chapter in the history of a country so devastated by decades of conflict and war that its history was torn from the ground by antique thieves and sold abroad for display in other countries. Museums. And it is a victory in a global effort by countries to urge Western institutions to return culturally important artifacts, such as the attempt to repatriate the famous Benin bronzes to Nigeria.
“This is not just about thousands of tablets returning to Iraq – it is about the Iraqi people,” said Hassan Nadhem, Iraqi Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, in a telephone interview. “It not only restores the tablets but also the trust of the Iraqi people by strengthening and supporting the Iraqi identity in these difficult times.”
The institution that housed about 12,000 of the items was the Museum of the Bible, a four-year-old Washington museum founded and funded by the Christian evangelical family who own the Hobby Lobby craft store chain. The addition of artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia was intended to provide context for the events of the Old Testament.
Four years ago, the US Department of Justice fined Hobby Lobby $ 3 million for neglecting to exercise due diligence in purchasing more than 5,000 artifacts; some of these artifacts were among those returned to Iraq last week. Hobby Lobby agreed to tighten its purchase procedures as part of the government lawsuit, and the museum found thousands more suspicious artifacts after it later initiated a voluntary review of its collection.
More than 5,000 of the other pieces returned last week were held by Cornell University. This collection from a previously unknown Sumerian city of Garsana was donated to the university in 2000 by an American collector. Partly because the city was unknown, archaeologists generally suspected that it came from a looted archaeological site in southern Iraq.
The holdings highlight a thriving market for stolen antiques and highlight the plight of countries like Iraq, which have been exposed to antique looting for three decades. When government troops lost control of parts of southern Iraq in 1991 after the first Gulf War, unexcavated sites were looted widely. And industrial-scale thefts continued after the 2003 US-led invasion amid a security vacuum.
Many of the clay tablets and seals returned are from Irisagrig, a lost ancient city. The existence of the city was only made known when plaques mentioning it were confiscated on the Jordanian border in 2003, while thousands more appeared in the international antique markets.
Southern Iraq, part of ancient Mesopotamia, contains thousands of unexcavated archaeological sites between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where the world’s first known civilizations began. Babylon and Ur, the supposed birthplace of the prophet Abraham, flourished there, and it is here that scripture, astronomy and the first known law book came into being.
Hobby Lobby’s collection of repatriated objects does not include the best-known of its holdings from Mesopotamia: an approximately 3,500 year old fragment of a clay tablet inscribed with a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient saga with similarities to stories of the Great Flood and the Garden of Eden, which is many centuries older than the Old Testament.
The Department of Justice, labeling it as “stolen Iraqi property,” seized the tablet in 2019. It is the Hobby Lobby’s only artifact among the artifacts returned to Iraq on display at the Museum of the Bible.
Hobby Lobby, which is suing Christie’s auction house for reclaiming the $ 1.6 million it paid for the fragment in a private sale in London, withdrew its objection to the return in July. Now in a federal warehouse in Brooklyn, the piece is to be returned to Iraq in a few weeks.
The 6 x 5 inch tablet was first offered for sale in 2001 by a Jordanian antique dealer in London. After that it changed hands several times and in 2014 Christie’s brokered a private sale to Hobby Lobby with documents later found to be false. The Justice Department said a trader had warned that the provenance would not stand up to scrutiny at a public auction. Christie’s said it didn’t know the documents were fake.
Hobby Lobby President Steve Green said that he knew nothing about collecting when he started the museum and that he was misled by unscrupulous traders.
Some of the artifacts were purchased in lots of up to 2,000, with the museum’s current director describing paperwork so vaguely that the museum did not know what it was getting.
Since most of the items bought for the museum have not been examined, they remain a mystery. The only artifact in the collection, a cuneiform brick from a temple from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, has a clear provenance. The museum says export papers from the family who donated it show that it was legally brought to the United States from Iraq in the 1920s.
But the artifacts returned by Cornell have been extensively studied by scholars who published their findings. Many archaeologists criticize any research into potentially stolen objects because it not only robs the countries of origin the opportunity to study the objects themselves, but also stimulates the trade in stolen antiques by raising the black market prices for similar objects.
“We missed this great opportunity to study our tablets, our heritage,” said Secretary of Culture Nadhem, who said Cornell did not consult Iraq in researching the tablets. “It’s a kind of bitterness in our mouth.”
Cornell, who gave little information about the return of his collection, said he had repatriated 5,381 clay tablets to Iraq. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice asked the university to return thousands of old tablets believed to have been looted from the country in the 1990s, according to the Los Angeles Times.
When asked about the returned artifacts, Cornell made a statement thanking the Iraqi government “for their partnership in continuing the vital work of preserving these important artifacts for future generations to study.” It also said it had published studies on the tablets for “the cultural benefits of the Republic of Iraq”.
Hobby lobby artifacts returned include thousands of items that were confiscated by the US government in 2011 and became the basis for the Department of Justice’s fine on the company. These included cuneiform tablets, old cylinder seals, and clay seal impressions known as bullae.
According to the Ministry of Justice, most of the shipments were marked with Turkish “ceramic tiles” and were sent by dealers in the United Arab Emirates to Hobby Lobby and two group companies. Others from Israel mistakenly declared Israel as their country of origin.
The Bible Museum counted more than 8,000 others when it began verifying the provenance of every item in its collection to emerge from the scandals that resulted from the Hobby Lobby’s acquisitions. The museum’s most famous acquisitions, alleged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, turned out to be forgeries.
When it became clear shortly after the museum opened that it could not verify the provenance of the Mesopotamia artifacts, it wrapped them up for return.
“The contents are largely unknown,” said Jeffrey Kloha, the museum’s collections director, who joined after the pieces were acquired. He has previously said that more than 5 percent of the artifacts that Hobby Lobby bought, allegedly from ancient Mesopotamia, are counterfeit.
Now, with the return of the Iraqi and previously other suspicious holdings, the museum is focusing on domestic acquisitions with much clearer provenances, including early Bibles, Kloha said.
Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University in Chicago, said it was difficult to assess the repatriation from an archaeological point of view because the significance of the returned Iraqi artifacts was unknown.
But she said the move was symbolic.
“I think the fact that the museum proactively went through and said, ‘Okay, we really can’t figure out where this stuff is coming from’ was an important step too,” she said. “Other museums should do the same.”