Stolen Art Returned to Iraq
The FBI this week returned an artifact to the government of Iraq that is believed to have been stolen during the pillaging of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003.
The item, named “Furniture Fitting with Sphinx Trampling a Youth,” dates back about 2,700 years, according to archaeologists. The ivory figure, which stands only 2 1/4 inches tall and 1 1/2 inches wide, is adorned with pigment and gold leaf. It was on exhibit at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta until special agents in the FBI’s Boston and Atlanta field offices determined the artifact was, in fact, the property of Iraq.
“We are glad our agents could return a small part of history back to where it belongs in Iraq,” said Keri Farley, special agent in charge of FBI Atlanta.
The piece is believed to be the first relic looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad to be found in a United States museum collection.
“FBI Boston is extremely proud to have played a role in helping to recover it,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the division’s special agent in charge. “This case represents our ongoing commitment to pursue justice for victims of art crime here and abroad and to rectify such losses to the historical record.”
Investigators believe the Carlos Museum purchased the artifact from a third party in 2006 after they were provided a fake provenance claiming the artifact entered the U.S in 1969. Agents consulted experts, including one with photos showing the item in the Iraq Museum in 1983, and representatives from the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, who helped confirm the artifact’s authenticity. After the yearlong investigation, which included agents in Boston, Atlanta, and the FBI’s specialized Art Crime Team Unit, the museum handed the artifact over to the FBI last December.
“FBI Atlanta is honored to have the opportunity to do its part by returning this important piece of cultural heritage to the people of Iraq,” said Special Agent Rafael Jimenez, who worked on the case. “The FBI is also grateful to the Michael C. Carlos Museum for its cooperation in this matter.”
In a March 8 ceremony at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington D.C., an Art Crime Team special agent delivered the artifact to the embassy for repatriation. The ceremony, which included the U.S. Department of State and Homeland Security Investigations, followed a conference at the embassy aimed at improving international cooperation in repatriating stolen artifacts.
“I appreciate always all the efforts from the U.S. law enforcement agencies,” said Salwan Sinjaree, the chargé d'affaires, or chief of mission, at the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq. Sinjaree formally received the artifact in a brief signing ceremony at the embassy and said he looked forward to more cooperation in the future.
Jake Archer, a special agent on the FBI Art Crime Team who presented the artifact to Sinjaree, said the repatriation could not have happened without the work of agents in Boston and Atlanta and the support of subject matter experts and partners in the U.S. and overseas. He said the FBI will keep pursuing criminals dealing in stolen art and antiquities even as the Bureau confronts myriad other priorities. “It will continue, wherever possible, to investigate the illicit trafficking of cultural property,” said Archer, “and seek to bring justice to both offenders and victims in this worldwide crime problem.”
The FBI’s Art Crime Team was established in 2004, in part as a result of the looting in Baghdad 20 years ago. The team includes agents from field offices around the country who are trained in all aspects of art, including history and the business of art. The Art Crime Team Unit at FBI Headquarters also manages the National Stolen Art File, a database of stolen art and cultural property submitted by agencies around the world.
“The FBI will continue, wherever possible, to investigate the illicit trafficking of cultural property.”
Jake Archer, special agent, FBI Art Crime Team