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British Museum to return looted Iraqi, Afghan artefacts

The British Museum holds thousands of artefacts from around the world [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 July, 2019

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The iconic British museum revealed it has been working with law enforcement agencies to return the works smuggled out during recent periods of conflict.
Looted ancient artefacts from Iraq and Afghanistan seized in Britain will be returned to their country of origin after appraisal by the British Museum, the institution announced on Monday.

The London-based museum revealed it has been working with law enforcement agencies including the UK Border Force and the capital's Metropolitan Police to return the works smuggled out during recent periods of conflict.

"Sadly, this work is more essential now than ever," said Hartwig Fischer, its director.

Among the important artefacts to be sent back to Iraq are 154 Mesopotamian texts written on clay in cuneiform script - one of the earliest systems of writing - seized on entry in 2011.

They were created between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, with many belonging to the administrative archives from a place called Irisagrig, which was unknown until artefacts referring to it first surfaced in 2003.

Another haul to be returned to Afghanistan are Gandharan sculptures illegally exported to Britain in 2002, the institution said.

“The British Museum has worked extensively with... law enforcement agencies to identify and return items looted from Iraq and Afghanistan during recent conflicts and these are just wonderful examples," Fischer said of the rare tablets. 

They will be handed over to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, part of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq.

The British Museum has also developed a collaborative project with antiquities authorities, collectors, dealers and law enforcement agencies which aims to identify and return trafficked objects to Egypt and Sudan.

The scheme has identified almost 700 illicit artefacts looted and trafficked from the two countries over the past year.

"All of these projects and much more that the British Museum is doing across the world is of highest importance for us," said Fischer.

However, the museum has faced criticism for failing to return some disputed items to origin countries, most notably the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, which Greece has long claimed.

Tutankhamun feud

The announcement came amid a feud between the UK and Egypt after a 3,000 year-old Tutankhamun artefact was sold in London for $6 million despite fierce opposition from Cairo.

Egypt has asked international police agency Interpol to track down the artefact following the £4,746,250 ($5,970,000, 5,290,000 euros) sale of the relic at Christie's auction house.

Egypt's National Committee for Antiquities Repatriation (NCAR) said after an urgent meeting that national prosecutors had asked Interpol "to issue a circular to trace" such artefacts over alleged missing paperwork, less a week after it was sold in the controversial auction.

"The committee expresses its deep discontent of the unprofessional behaviour of the sale of Egyptian antiquities without providing the ownership documents and the evidences that prove its legal export from Egypt," the NCAR said in a statement.

The committee - headed by Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany and attended by his predecessor Zahi Hawass as well as officials from various ministries - also called upon Britain to "prohibit the export of the sold artefacts" until the Egyptian authorities were shown the documents.

It suggested the issue could have an impact on cultural relations, by referencing "the ongoing cooperation between both countries in the field of archaeology, especially that there are 18 British archaeological missions are working in Egypt".

The NCAR added it had hired a British law firm to file a "civil lawsuit" although no further details were given. 

 'Stolen from Karnak'

The London sale of the head of "Boy King" Tutankhamun angered Egyptian officials at the time and sparked a protest outside Christie's by about a dozen people who held up signs reading "stop trading in smuggled antiquities".

Hawass told AFP that the piece appeared to have been "stolen" in the 1970s from the Karnak Temple complex just north of Luxor and the Egyptian foreign ministry asked the UK Foreign Office and the UN cultural body UNESCO to step in and halt the sale.

But such interventions are rare and made only when there is clear evidence of the item's legitimate acquisition by the seller being in dispute.

Christie's argued that Egypt had never before expressed the same level of concern about an item whose existence has been "well known and exhibited publicly" for many years.

"The object is not, and has not been, the subject of an investigation," Christie's said in a statement to AFP.

The auction house has published a chronology of how the relic changed hands between European art dealers over the past 50 years and told AFP that it would "not sell any work where there isn't clear title of ownership".

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