Draped carefully over a Persian rug, the 4,000-year-old lapis lazuli and carnelian necklace looked like a piece from a museum exhibit. It certainly belonged in one, having possibly once adorned the throat of a Mesopotamian royal.
But the bauble was part of a very different kind of display: an assemblage of stolen ancient artifacts and Saddam Hussein-era paraphernalia set to return to their native Iraq.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Customs and Border Patrol held a joint repatriation ceremony Thursday to transfer illegally imported objects back to Iraq. Iraqi Ambassador to the US Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaida’ie attended the event at the Washington Iraqi Cultural Center, highlighting its diplomatic significance.
“Iraq has endured a great deal, but on days like this we rekindle hope,” Mr. Sumaida’ie said.
Since the 2003 invasion, thousands of cultural items have been looted from Iraq, most notably from the National Museum of Iraq in Bagdad. The museum reopened in 2009, despite missing much of its renowned Mesopotamian collection.
“The looting of the Iraqi museum in Bagdad was heartbreaking for every Iraqi,” Mr. Sumaida’ie said. “It really was an attack on our identity.”
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigates the illegal trafficking of art and antiquities; since 2007, the agency has repatriated about 2,400 items to more than 20 countries. Agency Deputy Director Kumar Kibble discussed four investigations that turned up the items displayed Thursday.
The necklace was discovered in 2007 by the ICE office in Newark, N.J., after being sold at auction in London and shipped to the US listed as originating in Italy. A Persian carpet, AK-47 rifles, paintings and silverware were recovered from a ship in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2003, concealed behind medical equipment.
A suspicious advertisement on Craigslist alerted agents in 2010 to a stash of Hussein artifacts at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. The man who placed the ad said he obtained the items, including a marble slab from Hussein’s Bagdad palace, from a vendor while he was on military duty in Iraq. Other confiscated items from El Paso included a brass plaque, a poster of Hussein, Iraqi government seals and an AK-47 knife.
Toby Rowe was the ICE agent in charge of the 2010 Little Rock, Ark., seizure of Christofle silverware, table service and a Noritake gold inlaid tea set, all engraved with the Ba’ath Party seal. He said it was gratifying to attend the repatriation ceremony.
“Oftentimes we don’t get to see the end result,” he said. “Today we get to see an overjoyed ambassador from a foreign country receive items that mean the world.”
During the repatriation ceremony, Mr. Sumaida’ie expressed gratitude toward American officials.
“I thank our friends, the Americans, who have delivered once more what we expect of them and what we count on them to deliver,” he said.
He took a more ambivalent tone in an interview afterward, however.
“It’s a complex relationship,” Mr. Sumaida’ie said. “This sends the right signal to everyone. This is apolitical. It sends the message that we are friends. It helped us repair some of the damage that was done to our national heritage during the early days of the intervention.”
He said that the last shipment of repatriated items in September greatly excited the people of Iraq.
“You should have seen the attention that event got inside Iraq,” he said. “It was, if you like, the talk of the town for many days, if not weeks.”
Mr. Sumaida’ie said he anticipates the repatriated items will be displayed at the National Museum of Iraq, and mentioned the possibility of a special exhibit for items related to Hussein’s reign.
The ambassador was optimistic about the future return of Iraq’s cultural treasures.
“For sure we have a long way to go, but at least the foundation has been put in place,” he said.