A treasure trove of 17,000 looted artifacts has been returned to Iraq, in what was the largest amount of antiques returned to the country. Many argue that the move, which is the latest in a series of repatriations, could impact Greece’s quest for the return of the Parthenon marbles.
The tens of thousands of antiquities included ancient cuneiform tablets and clay seals from Mesopotamia, one of the oldest and most important ancient civilizations on Earth.
They were brought back to Iraq in wooden crates with Mustafa Al-Khadini, Iraqi Prime Minister, on his return from the United States. The priceless ancient artefacts are now held by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture.
Hassan Nadhem, Iraqi Minister of Culture, praised the insane interview with the New York Times, stating that âit is not just about the return of thousands of tablets to Iraq – it is about the Iraqi peopleâ¦ It not only restores the tablets, but the confidence of the Iraqi people by strengthening and sustaining the identity Iraqi woman in these difficult times. “
The returned artifacts have been kept at the Museum of the Bible, Cornell University
More than 12,000 of the nearly 20,000 looted artifacts returned to Iraq were in the collection of the brand new Bible Museum in Washington DC
The museum was founded and is currently funded by the Green family, owners of craft supply retailer Hobby Lobby, who are Evangelical Christians.
The Bible Museum, which aims to highlight the Bible’s narrative, history, and impact, presented ancient Mesopotamian artifacts as a background for Old Testament events.
The remaining looted antiques, which were part of the Cornell University collection, were donated by an American collector in 2000.
Many raised concerns about the provenance of the artifacts at the time, as they came from an ancient, unknown Sumerian city previously called Garsana.
The tablets provided a trace of the city and were particularly valuable in that they described aspects of daily life in great detail. It was a shock at the time that such important objects apparently appeared out of nowhere, with no information on how they were found.
The mysterious story has led many to believe that the objects were obtained as a result of looting and theft during the many bloody conflicts in Iraq at the time, which continued over the decades.
It is not known exactly what those who acquired the artifacts knew about their potentially bloody history, but many items stolen during the conflicts in Iraq have ended up in renowned museums around the world.
Shady Hobby Lobby Acquisitions, Counterfeits
Hobby Lobby was fined $ 3 million by the US Department of Justice in 2017 for its negligence in researching the provenance of its artifacts.
Many antiques that have just returned to the country were specifically mentioned by the DOJ in its complaint.
Hobby Lobby began to conduct more rigorous research into acquiring its artifacts as a result of the fine. When the collection of the Museum of the Bible was examined, thousands of objects were determined to be of suspicious provenance.
The Justice Department linked the items to a network of questionable antique dealers in the Middle East and found that many items purchased by Hobby Lobby had been shipped to them labeled as âTurkish ceramic tilesâ.
During this process, many of the most important artifacts on display at the Museum of the Bible have come under scrutiny, such as the fragments marked as pieces from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
After analysis, many items, such as pieces of valuable documents, turned out to be forgeries.
This has led the museum itself to determine that about 5% of their Mespotamia antiques are in fact fake; but it could be a much higher number.
Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, argued that he was not familiar with the whole process of buying antiques, let alone determining their authenticity or provenance, before acquiring its vast collection of antiques for the museum.
He claimed that this ignorance made it easier for shady merchants to take advantage of him and the museum.
Repatriation of artifacts to Iraq is part of a larger trend
The repatriation of such an important treasure trove of artifacts provoked various reactions.
Those who aspire to the return of objects fundamental to their own cultural heritage, such as the Parthenon marbles are in Greece, have welcomed the initiative.
But it can cause feelings of unease among European and American museums, many of which are full of artifacts that have shady acquisition records.
The return of artifacts reflects a shift in concepts of ownership and acquisition in Western museums. In 2021, Germany announced that it will return hundreds of works of art from Nigeria called the Benin Bronzes.
During the 19th century, British colonial forces invaded Nigeria and captured nearly a thousand looted works of art, which were later sold off and are today scattered throughout Europe and the United Kingdom. America.
Despite efforts over the past decades to return some of the bronzes, which date back to the 15th and 16th centuries, the vast majority remain outside Nigeria.
The quest for the return of the Parthenon marbles
One of the most important debates concerning the repatriation of antiquities centers around the Parthenon marbles.
The Parthenon Marbles were taken from Athens by the British nobleman Lord Elgin after claiming to have made a deal with the country’s Ottoman ruler in the 19th century.
Many historians have since found evidence that the agreement made by Lord Elgin to take the marble sculptures to England had no legal value and is therefore void.
Despite this evidence, the British Museum has always refused to make the marbles priceless, despite pleas and protests not only from the Greeks, but also from many others, who regard Athens as the legitimate homeland of the marbles.
The British Parliament, even in 1816, wanted to ensure that Lord Elgin had the power to remove the Parthenon marbles, and insisted on producing a document to prove it.
A third of them had very serious reservations about the legality – or the morality – of the removal of the marbles from Greece, and they insisted on such proof.
Questions regarding the legality of the acquisition of the Parthenon marbles
And a seemingly official Ottoman document called a firman was indeed produced – written in Italian.
According to many experts, the document that the British Museum calls a firman is not a real firman at all.
Professor Dr. Zeynep Aygen, author of the book âInternational Heritage and Historic Building Conservation: Saving the World’s Pastâ, stated that âthe letter in the Italian language is not at all a firman; there is no way he can be accepted as a firman.
She explained to Greek journalist that “the Ottoman court would not give a letter written in the Italian language … we do not know where the original of the letter is”.
Dr Aygen maintains that âa firman is a royal document with a number of special signs. It is therefore clear that the letter in the Italian language is not a firman approved by the Sultan and not a “buyruldu” by the Grand Vizier.
âIn both cases, the necessary format is missing from the aforementioned letter. “