Why Do Antiquities From Iraq Continue to Surface on the Market

David Gill, archaeologist, considers how antiquities derived from Iraq continue to appear on the antiquities market.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq led to the loss of some 15,000 items from the archaeological collections in Baghdad. This alerted the international community to the scale of the problem and as a result some 6000 objects have been handed over to Iraqi authorities. These have been seized in a range of countries across the Middle East as well as in Europe.

The Iraq Museum re-opened in February 2009. Brian Rose, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, was able to visit the collection in April and saw some of the reclaimed objects. He took encouragement from the use of the museum by school parties.

There have also been reports of systematic looting of archaeological sites in Iraq. John Curtis of the British Museum was part of a team that surveyed a small selection of sites in the south of the country. It now seems that unrestrained pillage of ancient sites has been curtailed.

These positive developments are counter-balanced by the continuing appearance of antiquities on the market. These items have possibly been derived from recent looting.

One recent study showed that over 300 cuneiform tablets were for sale on the internet on a single day in September 2008. A major New York auction house had to withdraw a piece of gold jewellery from its December 2008 sale after Iraqi authorities had raised concerns.

Within the last month a gold vessel seized from a Munich dealer in southern Germany has become the centre of attention. The item was handed over to archaeologist Michael Muller-Karpe, an expert on the metalwork of ancient Iraq. He identified the piece as likely to have been derived from a royal cemetery at Ur. Muller-Karpe has now retained the piece at the prompting of the Iraqi embassy in Berlin; there were fears that German courts could allow the vessel to be sold.

The international community needs to monitor the sale of antiquities that could have been pillaged from archaeological museums or sites in Iraq. There are likely to be stashes of material waiting to be released on the market once the initial concerns have calmed.

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