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September 15, 2008Washington, DC, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

ICE returns more than 1,000 artifacts to Iraq

Iraq Embassy receives a cache of significant cultural items illegally imported to U.S.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Julie L. Myers, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), completed the repatriation of 1,046 cultural antiquities to the Government of Iraq that were seized in four separate investigations dating back to 2001.

The items, which included terra cotta cones inscribed in Cuneiform text, a praying god figurine that was once imbedded in a Sumerian temple and coins bearing the likenesses of ancient emperors, are an illustration of the long and varied history of the country now known as Iraq. Remnants of ancient Cuneiform tablets, which were seized by the Customs Service in 2001, were recovered from beneath the ruins of the World Trade Center.

The objects were turned over in a ceremony this morning at the Embassy of Iraq, where Iraqi Ambassador Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaida'ie accepted on behalf of his government.

"The items returned today by ICE represent a priceless inheritance left to the people of Iraq by their ancestors," said Assistant Secretary Myers. "These treasures are not souvenirs to be sold to the highest bidder. The United States is committed to working with Iraq and other countries to ensure that cultural antiquities are preserved for future generations."

ICE, the largest investigative agency of DHS, handles investigations into cultural artifacts that show up on the world market. They work closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which often encounters such items in border or port inspections.

Although many sanctions imposed on Iraq have been removed, antiquities remain restricted for importation into the United States. The import restrictions apply to any cultural property of Iraq, including objects of ceramic, stone, metal, glass, ivory, bone, shell, stucco, painting, textile, paper, parchment, leather, wood, and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, or religious importance, illegally removed from Iraq since the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 661 on Aug. 6, 1990. In April 2008, Iraq import restrictions were imposed for archaeological and ethnological items under the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004.

In all four investigations of the importation of these caches of Iraqi cultural artifacts into the United States, the items were seized for false declaration of country of origin. No criminal charges have been filed at this time in any of these investigations, which included:

  • In 2001, ICE agents detained a commercial delivery of 300 Cuneiform clay tablets by a Newark, N.J., antiquities gallery for authentication by experts, which confirmed that the text on the tablets was of Iraqi origin and not Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as declared on Customs entry documents. These tablets were later recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center attack by agents searching for contraband from the lockers of the U.S. Customs House. In addition, this cache included 45 molded terracotta tablets, eight stone cylinder seals and nine amulets with animals were indicative of the Old Babylonian Period (1500 to 1700 B.C.).
  • Also in 2001, ICE agents received information from the Art Loss Register that a copper Sumerian Foundation Peg Figurine was being sold by auction at Christie's New York. Archaeologists familiar with an excavation at Al Hiba, Iraq, confirmed that it was a Sumerian Foundation figurine, circa 3rd Century BC, depicting a praying god, dating to the reign of King Enannatum of Lagash (circa 2400 B.C.). Importation documents indicated the figurine's country of origin as Syria. The figurine, estimated to be worth $100,000, had been stolen from the Iraqi museum at the end of the first Gulf war. Foundation figurines were buried in the foundations of temples to establish the patronage of the ruler who built the temple.
  • In 2003, twelve more such foundation cones were identified as from Lagash (Southeast Iraq) and not Syria as declared on a Customs entry document. The text found on each of the cones: "For Nigirsu, Enlil's mighty warrior, Gudea, ruler of Lagash, made things function as they should (or, made shine what is fit for the cult, or, made everything come forth), (and) built and restored for him his eninnu, the whit Anzu." The cones were created at or about 2141-2122 B.C.
  • Also in 2003, five Federal Express packages containing glass bottles, coins, copper knives, spear heads, necklaces, cylinder seals, a bronze stick and set of decorative armor were imported by another Newark, N.J., gallery. ICE New York agents determined, with the help of experts, that the items, which were originally declared to be of British origin, were all, except for the armor, from Iraq. In total, 671 items were seized (406 glass bottles, 5 bronze spear heads, 6 bronze daggers, 87 cylinder seals, 2 metal sculptures, 1 metal axe head, 120 beaded necklaces, 1 large bronze spear/sword, 10 metal daggers, 30 antique coins, 2 bronze figurines, 1 small glass plate) and determined to be from various locations throughout Iraq.

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