United States Returns Iraqi Artifacts Taken from 2003 Invasion

United States Officials Announced the Return of Artifacts Looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, in 2003.

Dec 17, 2022By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
United States
Iraq Museum. Via Wikipedia


United States officials on Wednesday decided to return stolen Iraqi artifacts back to Iraq. All of this is happening nearly 20 years after the United States-led invasion in this country, in 2003. Returned artifacts include seven Mesopotamian and Neo-Babylonian seals. Also, everything occurred during the repatriation ceremony held in New York.


Artifacts Smuggled into the United States

United States
Woman’s head from Uruk, Baghdad museum. Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images


The seals represent a small part of the 15,000 artifacts taken from the Iraq Museum. This also led to unregulated looting and damage to archaeological sites, in addition to the national museum. The office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg returned the artifacts.


Bragg manages a division devoted to illegally sold artifacts. He also returned the artifacts to Salwan Sinjari, Iraq’s envoy to the United States. First, one of the seals went up for an online auction. This caused the DA’s office to begin an investigation into the object’s origin and provenance.


General Counsel Leslie Dubeck at a reparation ceremony held in New York on December 14.


Soon there was a huge revelation. The consignor of the stamp had in possession six additional seals, purchased shortly after the looting of the Iraq Museum. There was no documentation to show that they entered the art market before 2003. The conclusion is they were smuggled into the United States.

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The seven objects consist of three stamp seals and four cylinder seals, also dating to between the Mesopotamian (2700-2500 B.C.E.) and the Neo-Babylonian (612-539 B.C.E.) periods. The objects also include images of gods, human figures, animals, and other scenes of worship. Also, each unique seal served as a personal signature to guarantee authenticity of either an individual or a business.


“Thieves looted the items and took advantage of the war” – DA’s Office Officials

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A U.S. tank takes up position outside the plundered Iraqi National Museum April 16, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq. Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images


Douglas Cohen, a spokesperson for the DA’s office, said the tip came from an informant who read Thieves of Baghdad (2005). This is a book about his experiences tracking down stolen artifacts by associate district attorney Matthew Bogdanos. Also, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) collaborated to return the seals.


“Thieves looted those items. They also took advantage of the confusion of war to turn a profit with total disregard for their cultural value,” said Ivan J. Arvelo, Special Agent in Charge of HSI in New York. “These artifacts…were a critical part of everyday life in the ancient world. Now, they will return to their rightful home.”


When asked about the theft, Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defence secretary at the time, famously replied: “Stuff happens…and it’s untidy and freedom’s untidy. Free people are free to make mistakes, commit crime and do bad things.”


Manhattan District Attorney’s Office


August 2021 marked a turning point in the efforts to repatriate Iraq. At that time, 17,000 artifacts from across Iraq found their way home. This also includes ones owned by the family that operates the chain of Hobby Lobby craft shops. Also, the ones held by Cornell University.


Dr. Salwan Sinjari, the Iraqi Charge d’Affaires to the United States, praised the investigation’s findings. “I’m grateful for the work of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for its efforts to repatriate these precious, and also historic antiquities to Iraq”, said Sinjari.

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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.