Nineveh On Line                                                                         Assyrians Treasures
Courtesy of the New York Times
26 July 2006
By Barry Meier & James Glanz

 One of the most important treasures looted in the ransacking of Iraq’s national museum three years ago has been recovered in a clandestine operation involving the United States government and was turned over to Iraqi officials in Washington yesterday.

The piece, a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash, was stolen in the days after the fall of Baghdad. In the wake of the looting, American officials came under sharp criticism from archaeologists and others for failing to secure the museum, a vast storehouse of artifacts from civilization’s first cities.

A headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash, looted in the ransacking of Iraq’s National Museum three years ago, has been recovered.

U.S. Helps Recover Statue and Gives It Back to Iraqis

The Entemena statue was taken across the border to Syria, and put on sale on the international antiquities market. Thousands of looted artifacts that remained in Iraq — from tiny cylinder seals to the famed Warka Vase — have since been returned to the museum, and a few pieces have been turned over by foreign countries, including Italy and the Netherlands. But the Entemena statue, estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq.

American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue, saying that to do so might impair their efforts to retrieve other artifacts. But people with knowledge of the episode described a narrative that included antiquities smugglers, international art dealers and an Iraqi expatriate businessman referred to as the broker who was the linchpin in efforts to recover the piece and bring it to the United States.

Since early June, the statue has been in an art storage warehouse in Queens. American officials had planned to turn it over to the Iraqi government at a public event, said Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. That opportunity presented itself yesterday when the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, visited Washington, where he discussed security problems in Baghdad with President Bush.

In interviews over the weekend in Baghdad, Iraqi officials expressed relief that the statue of the king, which had stood in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, had been found. But the same officials voiced frustration at what they said was the slow pace of international cooperation on the recovery of artifacts.

“I’m overwhelmingly happy,” said Liwa Sumaysim, the Iraqi antiquities minister. “We hope we get it soon so it goes back in the Iraqi museum, where it belongs.”

A spokesman for the antiquities ministry, Abdul Zahra Talqani, said the ministry first received word of the recovery about two months ago. He said hopes had been raised in the past, after reports of the recovery of the statue in Iraq, but those pieces turned out to be clay copies that had also been looted from the museum.

In June, not long after the statue was brought to the United States, two antiquities scholars were taken to the Queens warehouse, known as The Fortress, to authenticate it. The statue, which is made of diorite, a hard, dark rock similar to granite, was encrusted with dirt, suggesting that it might have been concealed during its sojourn in Syria. In addition, there were fresh chips along parts of its stone surface that did not appear in historical photographs, indicating recent damage.

Mohsen Hassan, an expert at the museum’s commission on antiquities, said that the statue, which weighs hundreds of pounds, was the heaviest piece stolen from the museum and that looters probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.

The statue of Entemena of Lagash is among the most important artifacts unearthed in excavations of Ur, an ancient southern city. The king is dressed in a skirt of tasseled sheepskin and his arms are crossed in prayer. Detailed inscriptions run along the figure’s shoulder and back.

The statue was found headless when originally excavated, and experts say its head might have been lopped off in ancient times to symbolize Ur’s emancipation from Lagash.

One of the experts who authenticated the statue, John M. Russell, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, said it was not only archaeologically significant but also striking because the king’s muscular arms were sculptured in a lively, naturalistic style. Earlier sculptural styles were cruder, he said.

Efforts to sell the statue began not long after it was stolen, said people with knowledge of the episode.

Hicham Aboutaam, an antiquities dealer who owns galleries in New York and Geneva, was approached while visiting Lebanon and shown a picture of the statue to gauge his interest in buying it, those people said. Initially, those holding the statue were seeking millions for it, one person said. Mr. Aboutaam soon discovered that it had been stolen and did not pursue the deal.

It is not clear precisely when or how Mr. Aboutaam — who pleaded guilty in 2004 to a federal charge of falsifying a customs document related to a different artifact — informed federal officials. He and his brother and business partner, Ali Aboutaam, declined to answer specific questions about the episode.

Last year, federal prosecutors in New York contacted Hicham Aboutaam and expressed interest in trying to recover the statue, said one person with knowledge of those events. Mr. Aboutaam agreed to help. Subsequently, he or his brother made contact with an Iraqi expatriate businessman now living in Europe. Soon, that businessman, who was referred to as the broker, became the pivotal figure in securing the statue.

Little is known about the businessman other than that he is involved in construction. But he began to shuttle among Iraq, Syria and other countries to make contact with those holding the statue and to negotiate its turnover. It was not known whether money had been paid to those holding the statue or whether promises had been made.

When asked what would be done with the statue, Mr. Hassan, the museum official, did not hesitate.

“We will fix it and put it in the same place where it was,” he said, adding that security had largely been restored at the museum, which is close to notorious Haifa Street in a district that periodically erupts in violence.

But a tour of the building over the weekend, granted reluctantly by Mr. Hassan, raised questions as to how the museum could function while housing valuable artifacts like the statue. A walk down a corridor toward the Sumerian Hall, for example, ended abruptly at a concrete wall, which someone had crudely crosshatched with a fingertip to simulate bricks. Mr. Hassan awkwardly conceded that four times since the invasion, he had been forced to wall off the collections as the only reliable means of preventing further looting.

He said he most recently put walls up a couple of months earlier after a mass kidnapping close to the museum gates. “When things get better,” he said, “we break it.”



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