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'Priceless' Iraqi relics recovered in Delco

Last month, a former Marine asked an FBI agent to meet him at a strip mall just off Interstate 476 in Springfield, Delaware County. He said he had something from Iraq the agent needed to see.
There, the ex-Marine opened a small plastic box. He delicately lifted white tissue to reveal eight stone cylinders, each about an inch high, each about 5,000 years old. They were signature seals, looted from near Babylon.

"He'd bought them at a flea market for a couple hundred dollars," recalled the agent, Bob Wittman.

The handover here marked the first recovery by the FBI in the United States of looted cultural property from Iraq, said Wittman, who heads the bureau's new national Art Crime Team, based in Philadelphia.

Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaida'ie, who will travel to Philadelphia tomorrow to view the seals, described them as "national treasures" that can be "traced to the very dawn of civilization."

"They are priceless as far as we are concerned," Sumaida'ie said. "In fact, these items are part of the history of humanity, and one of the earliest ways in which human beings began to document their transactions."

The seals, worth about $5,000 each, will be returned to Iraq after a three-month exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The ambassador said his country agreed to the exhibit, which begins tomorrow, to demonstrate its appreciation for their recovery.

Museum director Richard M. Leventhal said the display would help "explain to the general public why we must preserve cultural property around the world."

"Looting is a massive problem worldwide, and we are losing more every day than we uncover with archaeological work every year," Leventhal said.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan said the ex-Marine, whom he would not identify, acted in good faith when he learned the value of the "souvenirs."

"By all accounts, the materials were turned over as soon as he recognized they were historically significant," Meehan said.

The ex-Marine bought the seals from a vendor on a U.S. military base in southern Iraq in late 2003. He returned with them to the United States in early 2004 and took them to show Zainab Bahrani, a Columbia University professor of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology.

"I think he just looked me up on the Internet," Bahrani recalled. "He was in New York and looking for an expert.

"His goal was to return them right from the start. The reason he did it was that he was trying to show how easy it is to remove cultural artifacts out of Iraq. This is not a unique example. These objects are being taken out of the country by the thousands, and we are fortunate he brought the issue to the forefront."

The seals, likely created between 3500 and 2500 B.C., often were carried like necklaces, hung by a leather strap, Wittman said. They were rolled onto soft clay to secure doors, bags, baskets and boxes and identify the owner or restrict access to the contents.

"These pieces were handed down, father to son, and recarved," Wittman said.

Initial reports that Iraq's national museum in Baghdad, which housed a half million artifacts documenting Mesopotamia's past, was completely looted were exaggerated, said Richard Zettler, an associate curator at the Penn museum.

It is now clear that most of the museum's collection was moved to secure storage before the war, he said in a statement. But, Zettler said, 10,000 to 15,000 objects are still missing, including almost 5,000 cylinder seals.

The FBI's art-theft experts and the museum have a long history of working together on artifacts looted from other countries. Wittman has often worked with the museum, including on a case in which a museum curator identified a priceless Peruvian piece of gold body armor that had been recovered in a sting operation. It also was displayed at the museum and then returned to Peru.


Middle East Portal


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