Written by Jane Arraf
When the Iraqi prime minister’s plane touched down in Baghdad last week after an official visit to the United States, its cargo included 17,000 archaeological artifacts returned by a prominent museum and an Ivy League university in the largest-ever repatriation of looted Iraqi antiquities.
On Tuesday, plywood crates holding the thousands of clay tablets and seals — pieces from Mesopotamia, site of the world’s earliest civilizations — were stacked next to a table displaying a few of the artifacts as the Iraqi Culture Ministry took custody of the cultural treasures.
The repatriation of so many objects rounds out a remarkable chapter in the story of a country so ravaged by decades of conflict and war that its very history was pulled out of the ground by antiquities thieves and sold abroad, ending up on display in other countries’ museums. And it is a victory in a global effort by countries to press Western institutions to return culturally vital artifacts, like the push to repatriate the famed Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.
“This is not just about thousands of tablets coming back to Iraq again — it is about the Iraqi people,” Hassan Nadhem, the Iraqi minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, said in a telephone interview. “It restores not just the tablets, but the confidence of the Iraqi people by enhancing and supporting the Iraqi identity in these difficult times.”
The institution that held about 12,000 of the items was the Museum of the Bible, a 4-year-old Washington museum founded and funded by the Christian evangelical family that owns the Hobby Lobby craft store chain. The addition of artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia was intended to provide context for Old Testament events.
Four years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice fined Hobby Lobby $3 million for failing to exercise due diligence in its acquisitions of more than 5,000 artifacts; some of those artifacts were among those returned last week to Iraq. Hobby Lobby agreed as part of the government lawsuit to tighten its acquisition procedures, and the museum found thousands more suspect artifacts after it later initiated a voluntary review of its collection.
More than 5,000 of the other pieces returned last week had been held by Cornell University. That collection from a previously unknown Sumerian city of Garsana was donated to the university in 2000 by an American collector. Partly because the city was unknown, it was widely suspected by archaeologists to have come from a looted archaeological site in the south of Iraq.
The holdings underline a thriving market in stolen antiquities and highlight the plight of countries like Iraq, which has been subjected to three decades of antiquities looting. When government forces lost control of parts of southern Iraq in 1991, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, widespread looting occurred at unexcavated sites. And the industrial-scale thefts continued amid a security vacuum after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Many of the returned clay tablets and seals are from Irisagrig, a lost ancient city. The city’s existence became known only when tablets mentioning it were seized at the Jordanian border in 2003, while thousands more surfaced in international antiquities markets.
Southern Iraq, part of ancient Mesopotamia, contains thousands of unexcavated archaeological sites between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where the world’s first known civilizations began. Babylon and Ur, the reputed birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, flourished there, and it is where writing, astronomy and the first known code of law originated.
Hobby Lobby’s batch of repatriated objects does not include what had been the best-known of its holdings from Mesopotamia: a clay tablet fragment roughly 3,500 years old inscribed with a fragment of the Gilgamesh epic, an ancient saga mentioning the Great Flood and the Garden of Eden that predates the Old Testament by many centuries.
The Justice Department, which describes it as “stolen Iraqi property,” seized the tablet in 2019. It is the only Hobby Lobby artifact among those being returned to Iraq to have been exhibited in the Museum of the Bible.
Hobby Lobby, which is suing Christie’s auction house to recover the $1.6 million that it paid for the fragment in a private sale in London, withdrew its objections to returning it in July. Now in a federal warehouse in Brooklyn, the piece is expected to be handed back to Iraq in a few weeks.
The tablet, about 6 inches by 5 inches, was first offered for sale by a Jordanian antiquities dealer in London in 2001. It then changed hands several times, and in 2014 Christie’s brokered a private sale of it to Hobby Lobby with documents later found to be false. The Justice Department said that a dealer had warned that the provenance would not withstand the scrutiny of a public auction. Christie’s has said it did not know the documents were fake.
Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, has said that he knew nothing about collecting when he started the museum and that he had been misled by unscrupulous dealers.
Some of the artifacts were bought in lots of up to 2,000 pieces with what the museum’s current director has described as paperwork so vague that the museum did not know what it was getting.
Because most of the objects bought for the museum were not studied, they remain a mystery. The sole artifact that it has kept from the collection, a cuneiform-inscribed brick from a temple in Nebuchadnezzar’s period, has a clear provenance. The museum says that export papers from the family that donated it show that it was legally taken from Iraq to the United States in the 1920s.
But the artifacts returned by Cornell have been widely studied by scholars who published their findings. Many archaeologists criticize any research into potentially looted items, saying it not only deprives the countries of origin of the opportunity to study the objects themselves, but also helps fuel the trade in looted antiquities by raising black-market prices for similar items.
“We missed this great opportunity to study our tablets, our heritage,” said Nadhem, the Culture minister, who said that Cornell had not consulted Iraq on its research of the tablets. “This is a kind of bitterness in our mouth.”
Cornell, which has revealed little about the return of its collection, said that it had repatriated 5,381 clay tablets to Iraq. In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department urged the university to give back thousands of ancient tablets believed to have been looted from the country in the 1990s, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Asked about the returned artifacts, Cornell provided a statement thanking the Iraqi government “for their partnership as we continued the crucial work of preserving these important artifacts for future generations to study.” It also said it had published studies about the tablets for “the cultural benefits of the Republic of Iraq.”
The returned Hobby Lobby artifacts include thousands of pieces seized by the U.S. government in 2011, which became the basis of the Justice Department fine against the company. They included cuneiform tablets, ancient cylinder seals and clay seal impressions known as bullae.
Most of the shipments, according to the Justice Department, had been marked Turkish “ceramic tiles” and shipped to Hobby Lobby and two corporate affiliates from dealers in the United Arab Emirates. Others from Israel falsely declared Israel as their country of origin.
The Museum of the Bible counted more than 8,000 others when it began reviewing the provenance of every item in its collection in an effort to emerge from scandals resulting from the Hobby Lobby acquisitions. The museum’s highest-profile acquisitions, purported fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, turned out to be forgeries.
When it became clear shortly after the museum opened that it could not verify the provenance of the Mesopotamia artifacts, it packed them up to be returned.
“In a large measure, the contents are pretty much unknown,” said Jeffrey Kloha, the museum’s director of collections, who joined after the pieces were acquired. He has previously said that more than 5% of the artifacts bought by Hobby Lobby that were said to be from ancient Mesopotamia are fake.
Now, with the return of the Iraqi and, previously, of other suspect holdings, the museum has turned its focus to domestic acquisitions with much clearer provenance, including early Bibles, Kloha said.
Patty Gerstenblith, director of the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law at DePaul University in Chicago, said that because the importance of the returned Iraqi artifacts was unknown, it was difficult to assess the repatriation in archaeological terms.
But she said the move had symbolic value.
“I think the fact that the museum proactively went through and said, ‘OK, we really can’t establish where this stuff came from,’ that was also an important step,” she said. “Other museums should do the same thing.”