Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Repatriations Back to Iraq"

The VOA has publicized the handover of antiquities that were allegedly illicitly removed from Iraq. The story can be found here: http://www.voanews.com/english/2008-09-15-voa55.cfm A somewhat more detailed piece from "The Imperial Valley News" can also be found here: http://www.imperialvalleynews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2709&Itemid=1

Attendees at the ceremony included John Russell, a State Department employee and archaeologist. Russell previously lobbied Congress for passage of legislation to allow the State Department to impose "emergency" import restrictions on a host of Iraqi archaeological artifacts, including ones as common as coins. For more see, http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2008/05/john-russell-from-activist-to-regulator.html

As the "Imperial Valley News" states,

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. [Note: They were evidently stored after being seized in a US Customs Building that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks]

Later on in the article there are more details about the seizure of coins:

[I]n 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.

This article raises two obvious questions outside those already raised in two recent posts about Immigration and Customs Enforcement's exploits.

Most obviously, "Is that all?" I'm sure some will think that 1,046 objects is a significant number. However, that number must be judged against all the hyperbole we have heard since 2003. You know, the incessant chatter in the press and archaeological blogs that Iraqi archaeological sites have been "strip-mined" of immense numbers of artifacts with a lion's share being destined for the illicit market in the United States and Europe. At a minimum, the actual number seized in the US belies any claim that whatever may have left Iraq illicitly was destined for our shores.

Second, as someone who has collected and studied ancient coins for over 30 years, I would be quite interested to learn how "experts" were able to opine that the coins found in a FED EX package were illicitly removed from Iraq. Coins that circulated in Iraq also circulated around the Middle East (and beyond). Presumably, the coins in question could have been found in Iraq. On the other hand, they could also have been found most anywhere. And for that matter, for all I know, they could have resided in some collection for years before being seized by US Customs.

I say this for this simple fact: It is likely that much of the material that was seized and repatriated to Iraq was simply abandoned by the importer. Let's face it. The costs of hiring a lawyer to contest the seizure of items of small value like "30 antique coins" is just not worth it.

Without Customs' claims being tested in a contested adjudicatory hearing, it is at least possible that a significant number of the 1,046 items mentioned in the articles are actually being "repatriated" to a country from whence they never came!

All and all, this should be a cause for deep embarrassment for both ICE and members of the archaeological community like John Russell. Perhaps, that is why we are only hearing about this handover ceremony from the VOA and "The Imperial Valley News."

In the meantime, sources like the Art Newspaper are starting to ask hard questions about the claims of archaeological community about the extent of looting in Iraq. Hopefully, that long delayed scrutiny of the archaeological community's claims about Iraq is only beginning.

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