US returns over 17,000 looted artifacts to Iraq

Updated 5th August 2021
A rare cuneiform tablet bearing a portion of the epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian epic poem considered one the world's oldest works of literature, known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, originated in the area of modern-day Iraq and entered the United States contrary to federal law. The tablet was later sold by an international auction house (the "Auction House") to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. ("Hobby Lobby"), a prominent arts-and-crafts retailer based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for display at the Museum of the Bible (the "Museum"). Despite inquiries from the Museum and Hobby Lobby, the Auction House withheld information about the tablet's provenance. The tablet was seized from the Museum by law enforcement agents in September 2019.
Credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
US returns over 17,000 looted artifacts to Iraq
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
The US has returned more than 17,000 smuggled artifacts to Iraq this year, the country's foreign minister Faud Hussein told a press conference in Baghdad on Tuesday.
The items, some of which date back 4,000 years, include statues and carvings from ancient Mesopotamia. They will soon be joined by the so-called Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a rare carved stone bearing one of the oldest-known works of literature.
It is the largest ever repatriation of artifacts to Iraq, which has seen huge swathes of its cultural heritage looted and sold since the US invasion in 2003.
Thousands of artifacts are believed to have found their way onto the international art market after being removed from temples, archeological sites and even museums over the past two decades. ISIS, which controlled large parts of Iraq between 2014 and 2017, was also responsible for destroying and smuggling ancient antiquities to help fund its operations.
One of the looted artifacts, pictured during a ceremony at the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baghdad.
One of the looted artifacts, pictured during a ceremony at the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baghdad. Credit: CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Shutterstock
Tuesday's press conference, which saw Hussein formally hand the items to his counterpart at the country's Culture Ministry, comes just days after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi met with US President Joe Biden at the White House. However, Culture Minister Hassan Nazim said the deal was part of a long-standing collaboration with US authorities, and that the artifacts had been gradually returned over the course of the last year.
In addition to the 17,321 items recovered from the US, a further 17 were handed back from countries including Japan, the Netherlands and Italy. Meanwhile, the best-known of the artifacts, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, will be repatriated "in the next month after legal procedures are finalized," Nadhim told Reuters.
Containing part of the ancient poem "Epic of Gilgamesh," the 3,500-year-old cuneiform tablet measures approximately 6 inches by 5 inches. It is believed to have entered the US via an antiques dealer, who purchased it in 2003 and imported it to the country "without declaring the contents as required," according to the US Justice Department.
Boxes containing some of the repatriated items on display in Baghdad.
Boxes containing some of the repatriated items on display in Baghdad. Credit: urtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The item was then sold on several times before being acquired for over $1.6 million by American retailer Hobby Lobby at a 2014 auction. It was later seized from Washington DC's Museum of the Bible, whose chairman also serves as the president of the craft store chain.
Just a week before Tuesday's press conference in Baghdad, a New York federal court ordered Hobby Lobby to forfeit the tablet, according to the US Justice Department.
The Museum of the Bible has expressed its support for the government's effort to return the artifact to Iraq. Christie's, the international auction house from which Hobby Lobby bought the item, previously told CNN that "any suggestion that Christie's had knowledge of the original fraud or illegal importation is unsubstantiated."
A Mesopotamian clay cone bearing cuneiform inscriptions.
A Mesopotamian clay cone bearing cuneiform inscriptions. Credit: Iraq Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The artifact joins a growing list of items repatriated to Iraq in recent years. In 2019, a batch of 173 objects "from several countries" was returned, with another 1,300 sent back from neighboring Jordan, according to an Iraqi government press release.
Last year, the UK announced that it was returning a stolen 4,000-year-old Sumerian plaque to Iraq, after the British Museum discovered the item for sale on an online auction site.
An Iraqi government press release reported Hussein, the foreign minister, saying that his government would "spare no effort to recover the rest of our cultural heritage throughout the world."