On August 3, 2021, Iraq announced that the U.S. would return more than 17,000 looted artifacts, some of which were stolen during the 2003 invasion.
Artifacts Seized from DC- Museum and Cornell University
Thousands of artifacts went missing after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. ISIS, which controlled the region from 2014 to 2017, allegedly destroyed, stole and sold thousands of Iraqi artifacts. The U.S. returned the artifacts primarily held in DC-based Museum of the Bible and Cornell University.
According to the Washington Post, the Museum of the Bible held 12,000 of the stolen artifacts. An evangelical Christian family, who also owns craft store giant Hobby Lobby, founded and funds the Museum. displayed in the Museum were supposed to provide background into the Old Testament. Among the other artifacts returned include cuneiform tablets, clay seal impressions or bullae, and ancient cylinder seals—some of which were the basis of the 2011 government fine against Hobby Lobby.
In 2015, the Justice Department investigated and fined Hobby Lobby for looting artifacts from the Middle East for their Museum—some of the artifacts returned recently from that looting instance. As a part of the lawsuit agreement, the supply chain store agreed to implement stricter acquisition procedures. Also, after a voluntary review of their artifacts, it identified thousands of suspect artifacts.
Hobby Lobby’s president claims that he was unaware that the artifacts were stolen when he purchased the artifacts for the Museum. The current museum director said that the pieces were bought in lots with thousands of pieces that said that paperwork was “vague that the museum did not know what it was getting,” according to a Washington Post article.
The more than 5,000 artifacts returned were found in Cornell University. The collection has artifacts from the Sumerian city of Garsana, which archeologist believe came from the south of Iraq. Allegedly, Cornell received the artifacts as a donation from an American collector. In 2013, the Justice Department went after Cornell to pressure the university to return the artifacts allegedly stolen in the 1990s from Iraq. Cornell has used the artifacts as basis for the study for the “cultural benefits of the Republic of Iraq.”
In an optimistic press statement, the Iraqi foreign minister stated that the Iraqi government would “spare no effort to recover the rest of our cultural heritage throughout the world.”
U.S.’ Efforts to Combat Illicit Antiquities Trade
Earlier this year, the U.S. passed revision to the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA 2020) that would apply the same due diligent requirements used for financial institutions antiquities dealers. The amendments to the law amend the definition of financial institutions in the AMLA, under Section 6110(a), to include art and antiquities traders, thereby holding them to the same reporting standards as financial institutions under the BSA. Much like the drug or arms trade, art and antiquities, too, can be a source of money laundering. This type of illicit trade can is linked to international terrorism, persecution of cultural groups, and criminal networks.
The August IELR will have an in-depth discussion of this topic.