Feds Return Stolen Iraqi Artifact After Decades

After a year-long investigation, the FBI returns ‘a small part of history’ to Iraq that had been stolen two decades ago.

It has been called one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times.

The time was 20 years ago and the place was Baghdad during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

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As U.S. forces moved in on the country’s capital city, looters descended upon the National Museum of Iraq and stole an estimated 15,000 items. 

The looting sparked global outrage, with French President Jacques Chirac, declaring the incident “a crime against humanity.” 

Over the years, some artifacts from the museum have located and returned. 

And now one more item stolen from the museum two decades ago is on its way home, the FBI said on March 9.

The item, named “Furniture Fitting with Sphinx Trampling a Youth,” dates back about 2,700 years. The ivory figure stands 2 1/4 inches tall and 1 1/2 inches wide and is adorned with pigment and gold leaf.

The artifact had been on exhibit at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta until special agents in the FBI’s Boston and Atlanta field offices determined that it was the property of Iraq.

Returning ‘a Small Part of History’

The piece is believed to be the first relic looted from the Iraq Museum to be found in a United States museum collection.

Investigators believe the Carlos Museum purchased the artifact from a third party in 2006 after they were provided a fake provenance claiming the artifact entered the U.S in 1969.

Agents consulted experts, the FBI said, including one with photos showing the item in the Iraq Museum in 1983, and representatives from the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, who helped confirm the artifact’s authenticity.

After the year-long investigation, which included agents in Boston, Atlanta, and the FBI’s Art Crime Team Unit, the museum handed the artifact over to the FBI last December.

“We are glad our agents could return a small part of history back to where it belongs in Iraq,” Keri Farley, special agent in charge of FBI Atlanta, said in a statement.

In a March 8 ceremony at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington D.C., an Art Crime Team special agent delivered the artifact to the embassy for repatriation. 

The FBI’s Art Crime Team was established in 2004, in part as a result of the looting in Baghdad. 

The team includes agents from field offices around the country who are trained in all aspects of art, including history and the business of art.

Tracking Down Iraqi Artifacts

Thousands of artifacts stolen from the museum and other locations in Iraq are believed to have found their way onto the international art market after being removed from temples, archeological sites and museums over the past two decades, CNN reported.

ISIS, which controlled large parts of Iraq between 2014 and 2017, was also responsible for destroying and smuggling antiquities to help fund its operations.

In December, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced the return of Iraqi antiquities that had been looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003.

The pieces returned included four cylinder seals and three stamp seals dating to between the Mesopotamian (2700-2500 B.C.E.) and the Neo-Babylonian (612-539 B.C.E.) periods.

In 2021, Iraq reclaimed 17,000 archaeological artifacts, according to the New York Times

Roughly 12,000 of the items were held by the Museum of the Bible, which was founded by the family that owns the Hobby Lobby craft store chain.

The other 5,000 pieces had been held by Cornell University.

In 2017, Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit thousands of artifacts from Iraq and pay a $3 million fine to resolve a civil action by the Justice Department.

Three years later, Steve Green, the Museum of the Bible’s board chairman and the president of Hobby Lobby, announced the museum would be returning 11,500 artifacts to Egypt and Iraq.

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