David Gill, archaeologist, reflects on the recent return of antiquities from the U.S. to Iraq.
At the end of February a number of antiquities and other pieces of cultural property were handed over to Iraqi authorities. The objects had all been recovered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). A statement made by John Morton (ICE Assistant Secretary) affirmed the U.S. commitment to investigate those who seek to "rob a nation for personal gain".
Among the items was a pair of Neo-Assyrian gold earrings. They are reported to have been found in 1988 "under the floor of the Royal Palace of King Ashur-Nasir-Pal II at Nimrud (Iraq)". The earrings then surfaced in the December 9, 2008 catalogue for Christie's New York as lot 215. Their estimated value was between US$45,000 and US$65,000. They were seized by ICE at the request of the Iraqi authorities. It is not clear how the earrings were removed from Iraq. The Nimrud material had been stored in the Central Bank in Baghdad. These finds were documented by Paul Bremer on "The Secrets of Nimrud" (http://www.baghdadmuseum.org/ ) after the vaults were opened in early June 2003.
Another returned object was a Babylonian clay foundation cone dating to ca. 2100 BC. The inscription on the cone indicates that it came from a temple at Girsu, modern Tell Telloh in southern Iraq. The item had been recovered as it arrived at Chicago.
Two other pieces, a Sumerian bronze foundation cone and a stone tablet, were intercepted at Newark, New Jersey after being dispatched from a dealer in London, England. It is reported that they had been found in Syria but the Sumerian texts indicated that they had been placed in a temple in Iraq. The use of 'Syria' as the place of origin on import documents has been reported before with antiquities from Iraq.
A further item that was handed over was an AK-47 bearing an image of Saddam Hussein. This had been removed from Iraq as a "war trophy".
A number of antiquities seized in New York auction-houses were returned to Italy last year. This suggests that elements of the antiquities market needs to develop a more rigorous "due diligence" process to ensure that recently looted or stolen antiquities do not surface in North America.