WASHINGTON—More than 60 Iraqi cultural treasures illegally smuggled into the United States were returned to the Republic of Iraq following five separate investigations led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
The objects were seized at the culmination of investigations led by HSI offices in New York; Baltimore, Maryland; Austin, Texas; and New Haven, Connecticut. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s Office assisted in two of the investigations.
“These ancient treasures we are returning do not belong in the hands of any private collection or any one owner. They belong to the people of Iraq where they will be displayed and protected,” said Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security and ICE Director Sarah Saldaña. “ICE will not allow the illicit greed of some to trump the cultural history of an entire nation.”
“On behalf of the Government and people of Iraq, I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation to the U.S. Government and HSI special agents (the soldiers behind the scenes), and all those who contributed in restoring this priceless heritage that belongs to Iraq and its people, said Lukman Faily, Ambassador to the Republic of Iraq. “Today is a historic day that documents the deep relationship, cooperation and friendship between Iraq and the United States. While we stand here united with our friends and allies, we send a strong message to Daesh and its destruction that we are committed to defeating the terror, rebuilding our country and preserving its cultural heritage. The return of our looted archeological items is a national project and we call upon all countries to help us in preserving this heritage which is not only valuable for Iraq but for all mankind.”
One of the most significant items returned to Iraq is the Head of Assyrian King Sargon II, a limestone fragmentary head of Lamassu, the winged bull, from the Palace of Sargon II.
As part of “Operation Lost Treasure,” HSI New York special agents received information on June 30, 2008, that an antiquities dealer based in Dubai was selling looted Iraqi antiquities to dealers around the world. The special agents seized the limestone statue on Aug. 13, 2008, after it was shipped to New York by a Dubai-based antiquities trading company owned by the antiques dealer.
The investigation identified a broad transnational criminal organization dealing in illicit cultural property. Some of the network’s shipments were directly linked to major museums, galleries and art houses in New York. The investigation has resulted in one arrest, multiple seizures of antiquities ranging from Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan, and the return of many of artifacts. A repatriation ceremony with Afghanistan was held two years ago and future repatriations are anticipated.
In April 2012, HSI New Haven special agents received information that individuals were smuggling and transporting stolen goods, specifically gold plated items from Saddam Hussein’s private airport and palace. The individual obtained a water urn, door knocker and soap dish from in or around one of Hussein’s palaces.
HSI Austin special agents viewed a Craigslist posting selling objects consisting of swords, daggers and an ax from various time frames and regions. In June 2012 special agents determined that a Luristan bronze ax from Early Sumeria (present day Iraq) was among the artifacts being sold. The seller had no importation documentation and the ax was among several other items that were subsequently abandoned by the individual.
In January 2014, HSI Baltimore received a tip reporting that a senior civilian employee working in Iraq in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, withdrew an Iraqi window seal from an Iraq government building and brought it home.
Special agents met with the employee where he stated he was not aware that he required permission from the United States, Iraq or military authorities to export the item out of Iraq.
An investigation by HSI New York dubbed “The Mummy’s Curse” targeted an organization that smuggled cultural heritage objects into the U.S., sold them in antiquities markets and laundered the proceeds back to the source countries. As part of the investigation, 37 Iraqi bronze objects, 21 clay reliefs and 18 pieces of Iraqi glass were forfeited to the U.S. government to be returned to the people of Iraq. This investigation was unique in utilizing money laundering charges, which allowed investigators to seize bank accounts containing the proceeds from the sale of smuggled cultural property. This allowed ICE to identify a large transnational criminal organization, resulting in the issuance of four arrests warrants. So far two convictions have been secured and the agency is seeking an international fugitive involved in the case.
ICE has returned more than 1,200 items to Iraq in four repatriations since 2008. Since 2007, more than 7,800 artifacts have been returned to over 30 countries including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria, 15th-18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq, two Baatar dinosaur fossils to Mongolia and most recently 19 antiquities were returned to Italy.