WASHINGTON — An Assyrian king's bust valued at more than $1 million, an ancient bronze axe, and one of Saddam Hussein's gold-plated door knockers were among dozens of looted artifacts that U.S. Customs intercepted on their attempted sale or import and are sending back to Iraq.
At a ceremony Monday at the Iraqi Embassy, U.S. Customs officials signed over the fruits of investigations known as "Operation Lost Treasure" and "The Mummy's Curse" to the Iraq Ambassador Lukman Faily. They are returning 65 items in all, ranging from ancient clay tablets to bling lifted from one of Hussein's private airports.
The return comes even as the militant group ISIS smashes museums and ancient cities in northern Iraq, reportedly selling looted artifacts to help finance terrorism. Iraq sits squarely on the Cradle of Civilization, the Fertile Crescent, where some of humanity's earliest cities and civilizations blossomed more than 5,000 years ago. The entire nation is essentially an archaeological site.
"The heritage of Iraq is not only Iraq's alone, it belongs to humanity," Faily said at the ceremony. He called the return of the artifacts part of a "dry well strategy" designed to show looters — and art dealers — that plundered Iraqi antiquities would be still be seized even as fighting rages across northern Iraq.
Assyrian King Sargon II's bust was smuggled out of Iraq in 2008. It had once sat in front of a palace built in 713 B.C. in Nimrud, an ancient city recently looted and bulldozed by ISIS. An importer in New York had attempted to disguise the limestone bust as an item from Turkey valued at $6,500.
"We take these crimes very seriously," said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director Sarah Saldana at the ceremony. "The plunder of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of transnational crimes."
In the aftermath of the looting of the Iraq Museum and widespread pillaging that saw archaeological sites across Iraq turned into moonscapes of digger's pits, U.S. Customs officials have returned more than 1,200 looted artifacts and cultural items to Baghdad. "There is more to come," Faily said.
Investigations in New York, Maryland, Connecticut, and Texas have revealed links between museums, art dealers, and collectors to networks of overseas looters, Saldana said. The bust of Sargon II was recovered from a New York art dealer. In 2012, a collection of clay tablets, ancient glassware, and bronze daggers for sale in the same city was traced to an international group of looters and fences, whose assets were seized with money-laundering laws.
The artifacts will be sent to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. In the tumult following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the museum saw looting that attracted worldwide condemnation. It only reopened to the public in February, as another retort to ISIS. Looters had stolen thousands of cylinder seals from the museum that still await recovery.
Faily expressed confidence that the returned items would be safe in Baghdad. He pointed to the safeguarding in bank vaults of artifacts such as the "Treasure of Nimrud," a cache of hundreds of gold and jeweled artifacts from the ancient city recovered from a flooded bank vault in 2003.
The returned items will be kept in a similar vault, Faily said.
"This return represents a vote of confidence in the Iraqi government, on the part of the U.S. government, particularly in these difficult times when much of the cultural heritage of the Middle East is at considerable risk," Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, told BuzzFeed News.
The impact of returning looted artifacts is twofold, National Geographic archaeology fellow Fredrik Hiebert told BuzzFeed News. First, it tells the public and collectors that plunder can't be sold with impunity or expectations of an easy profit. "Just as important, people realize in these countries that we care about them and their culture when we return artifacts," he said. "This is really important right now," he added, amid the struggle with ISIS.
For archaeologists, once artifacts are looted, they lose almost all of their value, he said. "Once they are out of the ground, out of their original place, they almost can't tell us anything."
Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Dan Vergano at email@example.com.
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