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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

ICE returns Iraqi heirlooms

the Iraqi cultural artifacts returned by ICE
ICE Assistant Secretary Morton speaking at the repatriation ceremony
ICE Assistant Secretary Morton speaking at the repatriation ceremony

A stone tablet with ancient writing, a Babylonian clay statue, a Roman coin and ancient gold earrings are all back in the "cradle of civilization." U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned these historic treasures, as well as a chrome-plated AK-47 inscribed with a picture of Saddam Hussein, to Iraq in a formal ceremony held at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 25.

ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton said, "It is a great privilege and a great honor, on behalf of the people of the United States, to return to the people of Iraq this collection of cultural treasures reflecting your nation's rich history and heritage."

The items returned trace back to the days when modern-day Iraq was known as Mesopotamia or "the land between the two rivers" and "are precisely the types of treasures that ICE's Cultural Property Art and Antiquities Unit was established to identify, investigate and return to their rightful owners," said Morton. 

Working with other federal and international agencies, museum officials, scholars and historians, ICE has identified and returned 1,000 Iraqi items to the country since 2003 after the fall of the Hussein regime and subsequent attack on the Baghdad museum.  

The Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaida'ie, welcomed back "these markers of our history. They are the bedrock of our national identity, which is so important to a country that is rebuilding itself after so many traumas."

Morton signed the custody documents over to Sumaida'ie, who thanked ICE, "On behalf of the Iraqi people…for their continuing efforts to seize and return these cultural heirlooms to Iraq." He thanked "all those who played a part in this continuing happy story and in particular to the leadership and members of ICE.  As you might say in America, ICE is cool."

Irreplaceable historic and cultural artifacts are often looted and pillaged and make their way out of their country of origin through trading and smuggling and pass along though a chain of transactions. For instance, the Neo-Assyrian gold earrings dating back to the 7th or 8th Century B.C. that ICE returned to Iraq were stolen from the Baghdad Museum. They turned up at a well-known auction house in New York.

"These treasures are not for sale to the highest bidder, and ICE, along with our global partners, will take every step to investigate these crimes and return these properties to their rightful owners," Morton said.

"Heroism is not always done exclusively in the theater of war," Sumaida'ie said, "but whenever somebody recognizes he has to do the right thing."

The following ICE supervisory special agents (SSA) were personally recognized at the ceremony for their work in the repatriation effort:

  • Ralph "Chip" Owens
  • Mike Poluski
  • Jim McAndrew
  • James Greer
  • Mark Knoblock

ICE works with art, archeology and cultural heritage experts to authenticate items to determine their true ownership and has returned artifacts to countries all over the world. In closing remarks, Morton said "We have a tremendous responsibility that transcends us as people or even as institutions or countries" in returning ancient artifacts. Morton said the best way to continue repatriation efforts is for people to "pick up the phone and call us" with leads. "I can promise you, we'll follow up and hunt people down. If we can return artifacts to the countries where they belong, we'll do it."

For more information on ICE cultural heritage repatriations, visit the ICE Cultural Heritage Investigations and Repatriations page.