Iraq, War Economy, and Cultural Restitution

On 28th July 2021, the United States agreed to return to Iraq some 17,000 archaeological treasures dating back 4,000 years and looted in recent decades in an “unprecedented” restitution, the culture minister in Baghdad has said. A diplomatic arrangement had been arranged when Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC last week.

This is the largest return of antiquities to Iraq,” said Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim, hailing the decision as “the result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with their embassy in Washington”. Iraq’s antiquities have been extensively looted during decades of war and armed uprisings, often by organised crime groups and by occupying forces, since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. “It is impossible to quantify the number of pieces that have been stolen from archaeological sites,” Qahtan al-Obaid, director of antiquities and heritage at the Basra Museum, told the AFP news agency. Archaeological sites across the country have been severely damaged and neglected, and museums looted, with some 15,000 pieces stolen from Iraq’s only national museum in Baghdad.

As Saddam Hussein’s government fell in April 2003, news accounts detailed the US army’s pillage of Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad. The museum’s looting grabbed headlines worldwide and public attention briefly focused on Iraq’s threatened cultural heritage. Less dramatic was the subsequent epidemic of looting at thousands of archaeological sites around the country. Illegal digging on a massive scale continues to this day, virtually unchecked, with Iraq’s ten thousand officially recognized sites being destroyed at a rate of roughly 10 percent per year. The pillage of the country was on-going throughout the occupation.

The war economy was sustained by the theft and sale of Iraqi antiquities during the Anglo-American invasion. The Guardian reported on one particular item that had had its seizure from the conflict concealed by smugglers, ‘The Department of Justice (DoJ) alleges that the 3,600-year-old “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet”, which originated in a region that is now part of Iraq, was acquired in 2003 by an American antiquities dealer, “encrusted with dirt and unreadable”, from the family member of a London coin dealer. Once it had arrived in the US, and been cleaned, experts realised that it showed a portion of the Gilgamesh epic, one of the world’s oldest works of literature, in the Akkadian language.’

‘The DoJ alleges that the dealer then sold the tablet with a “false provenance letter”, saying that it had been inside a box of ancient bronze fragments purchased in a 1981 auction. It was then sold several times before Hobby Lobby bought it from a London auction house in 2014, and put it on display in the Museum of the Bible.’ 

The BBC added, ‘Officials said the tablet was purchased by a US antiquities dealer in 2003 in London, who then shipped it to the US without declaring the contents and sold it on with false documentation. After changing hands several times, the tablet was eventually bought by Hobby Lobby from an auction house for more than $1.67m (£1.2m) in 2014.’

I hope that in the near future we will be able to recover the rest of our goods, especially in Europe

Nazim in his statement

The issue of pillage and cultural restitution has been a central issue in Britain following discussions around the British Museum and the capture of Benin Bronzes. The violent seizure, destruction, and profit of Iraqi antiquities is part of a longer history of extractive colonisation; profits that helped facilitate economic inequality between the global north and global south. This recent news suggests that Western nations may soon have to face a reckoning regarding their past crimes and make restitution.