A trove of 17,000 looted artifacts have been returned to Iraq, in what was the largest amount of antiquities 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 significant ancient civilizations on Earth.
They were brought back to Iraq in wooden crates with Mustafa Al-Khadini, Iraqi Prime Minister, on his trip back from the United States. The priceless ancient artifacts are now held by Iraq’s Culture Ministry.
Hassan Nadhem, the Iraqi Culture Minister, lauded the move inane interview with the New York Times, stating it “is not just about thousands of tablets coming back to Iraq again — it is about the Iraqi people…It restores not just the tablets, but the confidence of the Iraqi people by enhancing and supporting the Iraqi identity in these difficult times.”
Returned artifacts were held in Museum of the Bible, Cornell University
Over 12,000 of the nearly 20,000 looted artifacts that were returned to Iraq were in the collection of the newly-opened Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.
The museum was founded and is currently funded by the Green family, the owners of craft supply retailer Hobby Lobby, who are evangelical Christians.
The Museum of the Bible, which aims to highlight the narrative, history, and impact of the Bible, displayed the ancient Mesopotamian artifacts as context for the events of the Old Testament.
The remaining looted antiquities, which were in the collection of Cornell University, were donated by an American collector in 2000.
Many raised concerns about the provenance of the artifacts at the time, as they were from a previously unknown ancient Sumerian city called Garsana.
The tablets provided a record of the city, and were particularly valuable in that they described aspects of daily life there in great detail. It was a shock at the time that such important objects had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, without any information about how they were found.
The mysterious back story led many to believe that the objects had been obtained as the result of looting and theft during the many bloody conflicts in Iraq at the time, which have continued throughout the decades.
It is unclear how much those who acquired the artifacts knew about their potentially bloody history, but many objects stolen during conflicts in Iraq ended up in renowned museums around the world.
Hobby Lobby’s shady acquisitions, fakes
Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million by the US Department of Justice in 2017 for its negligence in terms of research into the provenance of its artifacts.
Many of the antiquities just returned to the country were mentioned specifically by the DOJ in its complaint.
Hobby Lobby began to conduct more rigorous research into the acquisition of its artifacts as a result of the fine. When the Museum of the Bible’s collection was scrutinized, thousands of objects were determined to be of suspicious provenance.
The Justice Department linked the objects to a network of dubious antiquities dealers in the Middle East, and found that many objects purchased by Hobby Lobby had been shipped to them labeled as “Turkish ceramic tiles.”
During this process, many of the most significant artifacts on display at the Museum of the Bible came under scrutiny, such as the fragments marked as pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
After analysis, many objects, like the pieces of the precious documents, were proven to be forgeries.
This caused the museum itself to determine that an estimated 5% of their antiquities from Mespotamia are actually fakes; but this could be a much higher figure.
Steve Green, the President of Hobby Lobby, argued that he was unfamiliar with the entire process of purchasing antiquities, let alone determining their authenticity or provenance, before acquiring his vast collection of ancient objects for the museum.
He claimed that this unfamiliarity made it easier for shady dealers to take advantage of him and the museum.
Repatriation of artifacts in Iraq part of broader trend
The repatriation of such a significant trove of artifacts has provoked a variety of reactions.
Those who yearn for the return of objects that are fundamental to their own cultural heritage, like the Parthenon Marbles are to Greece, have praised the move.
But it may cause feelings of unease amongst European and American museums, many of which are full of artifacts that have shady acquisition records.
The return of the artifacts reflects a shift in concepts of ownership and acquisition in western museums. In 2021, Germany announced that it would return hundreds of works of art from Nigeria called the Benin Bronzes.
During the 19th century, British colonial forces invaded Nigeria and made off with nearly one thousand looted artworks, which were then sold off and are now dispersed throughout Europe and America.
Despite efforts made in recent decades to return some of the bronzes, which date back to the 15th and 16th centuries, the vast majority remain outside of Nigeria.
The quest for the return of the Parthenon Marbles
One of the most prominent debates surrounding repatriation of antiquities centers around the Parthenon Marbles.
The Parthenon Marbles were taken from Athens by British nobleman Lord Elgin after he claimed to have made a deal with the Ottoman ruler of the country in the 19th century.
Many historians have since found evidence that the deal made by Lord Elgin to take the marble sculptures to England had no legal standing and is therefore void.
Despite this evidence, the British Museum has consistently refused to return the priceless marbles, despite pleas and protests by not only Greeks, but also by many others, who view Athens as the marbles’ rightful home.
The British Parliament, even back in 1816, wanted to be sure that Lord Elgin had authority to remove the Parthenon Marbles, and insisted on the production of a document to prove it.
One third of them had very serious reservations about the legality — or morality — of the taking of the marbles out of Greece, and they insisted on such proof.
Questions regarding legality of acquisition of Parthenon Marbles
And an apparently official Ottoman document called a firman was indeed produced — written in Italian.
According to many experts, the document the British Museum refers to as a firman is not an actual firman at all.
Professor Dr. Zeynep Aygen, the author of the book “International Heritage and Historic Building Conservation: Saving the World’s Past,” has stated that “the letter in the Italian language is not a firman at all; there is no way that it can be accepted as a firman.”
She explained to Greek Reporter 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 “a firman is a royal document with a number of special signs. Therefore it is clear that the letter in the Italian language is not a firman approved by the Sultan and not a “buyruldu” by the Grand Vizier.
“In both cases the necessary format is missing from the aforementioned letter.”