Iraq's stolen art problem

One of the recently found Iraqi seals.

One of the recently found Iraqi seals.

ARCHAEOLOGY/Penn Museum raises awareness of looted Iraqi artifacts that turned up in U.S.

The eight Iraqi seals currently on display at the Penn Museum are small enough to fit easily in the palm of your hand—a fact that makes them easily transportable, highly collectable and extremely valuable as looted objects. And that’s just what they are.

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Iraq's stolen art problem


On loan to the Museum until early-May, the cylindrical seals are reported to have originally come from a site near Diwaniya, in south-central Iraq, says Associate Professor of Anthropology Richard Zettler. They made their way into this country by way of an American soldier who purchased the artifacts from a flea market in Iraq and mailed them home as gifts. When he realized they may have been looted, he turned them over to the FBI’s Art Crime Team, who, in turn, formally returned them to their country of origin last month. The short-term display at the Museum, “Update on Iraq’s Endangered Cultural Heritage,” is intended to draw public attention to the looting of ancient artifacts.

With carvings that range from the simple to the elaborate, the seals would have been used to secure different types of containers, such as jars and boxes, and to identify the author of written documents, much like a signature is used today. They are good examples of early Mesopotamian run-of-the-mill artifacts, according to Zettler.

The practice of looting from archaeological sites is a serious problem around the world—from the Andes to Southeast Asia—says Zettler, also the associate curator in charge of the Near East Section. “Archaeological sites have been looted since locals learned there was a market for this stuff,” he says. “Iraq is the problem writ large.” Where are these objects ending up? Sometimes in the hands of private collectors; other times, in museums.

“A lot of museums view their mission as collecting,” says Zettler. It’s an important part of what Penn Museum does, too, but it will not purchase or accept cultural antiquities without information about the various owners of the objects, place of origin and legality of export—something it’s been committed to since writing “The Philadelphia Declaration” in 1970.

Though Zettler says the market for antiquities has quieted down recently, he suspects it has just moved deeper underground. Working to combat these thefts is the FBI’s Art Crime Team, which maintains a database of stolen art and works to recover stolen or looted objects. The Philadelphia branch of this team keeps in frequent touch with experts at the Museum. For this recent recovery, an expert at Columbia University originally authenticated the seals, but Zettler says a member of the Philadelphia Art Crime Team requested he take a look at them, too. The Museum has long had a relationship with the FBI—back in 1998, Associate Professor of Anthropology Clark Erickson helped to identify a stolen gold artifact of the Moche culture (from Peru) that was confiscated in Philadelphia.

The looting of Iraq’s National Museum in April, 2003, was greatly exaggerated in early reports, says Zettler, but the loss to the Museum’s documented collection is still significant—about 10,000 to 15,000 objects are still missing from the Museum, including about 5,000 seals.

Zettler says efforts to suppress looting in the Middle East are particularly important, since that’s considered to be the cradle of civilization. “Iraq is where our modern type of life emerged, where people first began to live in large populated centers. ... It’s really at the core of modern life, in a way,” says Zettler. “Socially, economically and politically, modern societies first developed in Iraq.”

Originally published on March 17, 2005