On Wednesday Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced that US investigators would return seven seals of Mesopotamia and Neo-Babylonia to Iraq. The seals are a small part of the 15,000 artifacts removed from the Iraq museum after the 2003 invasion of that country.

In March 2021, one of the seals was put up for sale in an online auction, prompting prosecutors to investigate the item’s origin and provenance. It was soon discovered that the consignor of the stamp was in possession of six additional stamps, which had been purchased shortly after the Iraq Museum was looted. There was no documentation on the seals to show that they had entered the art market before 2003.

Instead, the works were found to have been smuggled into the US, where they were purchased through various galleries and online auctions by private collectors between 2004 and 2009.

A US tank takes up position near the looted Iraqi National Museum on April 16, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the blame for the soldiers who reportedly stood by as the looting of the museum’s priceless jewels took place, telling a news conference that “it’s hard to stop.”
(Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)

The seven facilities consist of three heraldic seals and four cylinder seals, which dates to the period between the Mesopotamian (2700-2500 BC) and Neo-Babylonian (612-539 BC) periods. Seals were used to make impressions on wet clay, and cylindrical seals were wound onto a two-dimensional surface.


Images of gods, human figures, animals and other cult scenes are carved on the objects. Each unique seal served as a personal signature that guaranteed the authenticity of both the individual and the enterprise.

Douglas Cohen, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, told The Art Newspaper that the tip came from an informant who had read Thieves of Baghdad (2005), Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanas’ book about his experiences investigating stolen antiquities.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) worked with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to recover the seals.

“These objects were looted by thieves who took advantage of the confusion of war to profit with complete disregard for their cultural value,” said Ivan J. Arvello, Special Agent in Charge of HSI in New York.. “These artifacts…were an important part of everyday life in the ancient world. Now they will return to their rightful home.”

At the time of the invasionThe looting of the Iraq Museum collection has sparked debate over Washington’s ability to maintain order in Iraq as Saddam Hussein’s police and military unravel.

American troops, the only authority in the city at the time, were heavily criticized for not protecting the museum’s treasures and other cultural institutions, such as the National Library and the Saddam Art Center, a museum of contemporary Iraqi art.

Others argued that US forces had no mandate to operate from Washington.

Asked to comment on the looting, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld famously said, “Things happen … and it’s messy, and freedom is messy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

Two U.S. soldiers from the 1st Division, 2nd Brigade, Texas, visit the Iraq Museum on September 10, 2003 in Baghdad.

Two U.S. soldiers from the 1st Division, 2nd Brigade, Texas, visit the Iraq Museum on September 10, 2003 in Baghdad.
(Thomas Koeks/AFP via Getty Images)


Since 2015, when the museum reopened to the public, the debate has fallen by the wayside, and Iraqi officials have sought to move forward.

An important point in Iraq’s repatriation efforts occurred in August 2021, when 17,000 artifacts were returned from across Iraq, including those held by the family that owns the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores and Cornell University.

Dr. Salwan Sinjari, US Chargé d’Affaires for Iraq, praised the results of the recent investigation.

“I am grateful to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for its efforts to return these valuable historical antiquities to Iraq,” Sinjari said. “These works belong to Iraq — and belong to Iraq — and now they will help the Iraqi people better understand and appreciate our own history and culture with this connection to the past. This is another example of the long-standing cooperation, friendship and partnership between Iraq and the United States.”

Female head from Uruk, Baghdad Museum;  also known as "Sumerian Mona Lisa."

Female head from Uruk, Baghdad Museum; also known as the “Sumerian Mona Lisa”.
(Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


While some treasures c museum collection as the Sumerian Mona Lisa, a 5,000-year-old mask, has been returned, thousands remain to be recovered.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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