On Wednesday, the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced that US investigators would return seven Mesopotamian and Neo-Babylonian seals to Iraq. The seals are a small fraction of 15,000 artifacts taken from the Iraq Museum in the aftermath of the country’s 2003 invasion.
In March 2021, one of the seals went up for sale in an online auction, leading Manhattan prosecutors to launch an investigation into the object’s origin and provenance. The sender of the stamp was soon revealed to be in possession of six additional seals which were purchased shortly after the Iraq Museum was looted. The seals did not have any documentation that would prove they had entered the art market before 2003.
Instead, it was determined that the pieces were smuggled into the United States, where they were purchased through various galleries and online auctions by a private collector between 2004 and 2009.
The seven objects consist of three stamp seals and four cylinder seals, datable between the Mesopotamian period (2700-2500 BC) and the Neo-Babylonian period (612-539 BC). The seals would be used to make impressions in wet clay, with the cylinder seals being rolled across the two-dimensional surface.
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The objects are carved with images of deities, human figures, animals and other cult scenes. Each unique seal served as a personal signature to ensure the authenticity of an individual or company.
Douglas Cohen, a spokesman for the Manhattan 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 experience in the dragging stolen antiquities.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) worked with Manhattan prosecutors to return the seals.
“These items were looted by thieves taking advantage of the confusion of war to make a profit with complete disregard for their cultural value,” said Ivan J. Arvelo, special agent in charge of HSI in New York. “These artifacts…were a key part of daily life in the ancient world. Now they will return to their rightful home.”
At the time of the invasion, the looting of the Iraq Museum’s collection became a subject of debate over Washington’s ability to maintain order in Iraq as Saddam Hussein’s police and army unraveled.
US troops, the only power in the city at the time, were sharply criticized for failing to protect the treasures of the Iraqi Museum and other cultural institutions such as the national library and the Saddam Art Center, a museum of modern Iraqi art.
Others argued that US troops did not have a mandate to act from Washington.
Asked to comment on the looting, then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld famously said, “Things happen … and it’s messy and freedom is messy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do things bad”.
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Since 2015, when the Museum reopened to the public, the debate has faded into the background and the Iraqi authorities have tried to move forward.
A major moment in Iraqi repatriation efforts came in August 2021, when 17,000 artifacts from across Iraq were returned, including those held by the family that owns the Hobby Lobby craft store chain and Cornell University.
Dr. Salwan Sinjari, Iraqi Charge d’Affaires for the United States, praised the results of the recent investigation.
“I am grateful for the work of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in its efforts to repatriate these valuable historical antiquities to Iraq,” Sinjari said. “These pieces belong to Iraq – and they belong to Iraq – and now they will help the Iraqi people better understand and appreciate our history and culture with this connection to the past. This is another example of the cooperation, friendship and long-standing partnership between Iraq and the United States”.
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While some treasures from the Museum’s collection such as the “Sumerian Mona Lisa,” a 5,000-year-old mask, have been returned, thousands remain to be recovered.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.