The Minister of Culture in Baghdad said that the United States will return to Iraq about 17,000 archaeological treasures dating back 4,000 years and looted in recent decades in an “unprecedented” return operation.
Wednesday’s announcement came days after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi met US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC.
Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim said that Al-Kazemi was scheduled to take back artifacts from Mesopotamia on his plane upon his return to the country on Thursday.
“This is the largest return of antiquities to Iraq,” Nazim said, praising the decision as “the result of months of efforts made by the Iraqi authorities in coordination with their embassy in Washington.”
The ministry said in a statement that most of the artifacts document “trade exchanges in the Sumerian era.”
Iraq’s antiquities have been widely looted during decades of war and armed uprisings, often by organized crime groups, since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
“It is impossible to determine the number of items stolen from archaeological sites,” Qahtan al-Obeid, director of antiquities and heritage at the Basra Museum, told AFP.
Archaeological sites across the country have been badly damaged and neglected, and museums have been looted, with some 15,000 items stolen from Iraq’s only national museum in Baghdad.
“I hope that in the near future we will be able to recover the rest of our goods, especially in Europe,” Nazim said in his statement.
The US Justice Department said separately in Washington that among the pieces to be returned to Iraq is a 3,500-year-old clay tablet with a sequence from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was in the Washington Museum of the Bible.
It was not immediately clear if the “Dream Gilgamesh Tablet” would be among the 17,000 items to be returned this week.
The rare piece, which narrates a dream sequence from the epic in Akkadian cuneiform, is one of many ancient artifacts from the Middle East collected by David Green, billionaire owner of the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts store chain.
A rare cuneiform tablet bearing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh was ceded to the United States
Auction house sold Gilgamesh Dream Tablet to Hobby Lobby using wrong source https://t.co/syAmwcibb5
– Ministry of Justice (TheJusticeDept) 27 July 2021
It was seized by the US Department of Justice in 2019, two years after Greene opened the Museum dedicated to ancient Christian history in downtown Washington, DC.
The tablet was just one of thousands of Iraqi-origin artifacts, mostly cuneiform tablets and seals dating back 3,000 to 4,000 years, seized from the Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible for return to Iraq.
The Ministry of Justice said they were looted in Iraq, and trafficked illegally by traffickers in Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
According to the Department of Justice, the 15.2 x 12.7 cm (six by five inches) tablet was purchased by the Hobby Lobby from a prominent auction house in 2014 for $1.67 million.
It was originally brought illegally to the United States in 2003 by a dealer, who bought it in London from a Jordanian dealer known for ancient Middle Eastern antiquities.
It was then traded several times with fake source letters to assure buyers that it was obtained legally, rather than being the product of the underground antiquities trade.
In 2014, the Hobby Lobby arranged to purchase the tablet in New York, but executed the deal in Oklahoma to avoid sales taxes, according to the Department of Justice.
The company then donated it to the Museum of the Bible’s collection.
Since the tablet was seized in 2019, the Department of Justice has sought formal ownership through confiscation laws to be able to return it to its rightful owners.
“This abstraction marks an important milestone in the repatriation of this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature,” said acting US Attorney Jacqueline Casoulis of New York’s Eastern District.
“This office is committed to combating the black market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts,” it said in a statement.