March 15, 2015
By Tom Mashberg
American officials on Monday are expected to repatriate about 65 objects to the Iraqi government, among them the head of a massive statue that was stolen in 2007 or 2008 from the same ancient Assyrian archaeological site where Islamic State militants have been rampaging in recent weeks.
Other artifacts to be returned to Iraq, officials said, include clay tablets and glass pieces — as well as Bronze Age spear blades, an ax head and other weaponry dating back more than 4,500 years to the Sumerian period. The handover will take place at the Iraqi Consulate in Washington.
The items — seized during several multiyear, multistate investigations into smuggled antiquities conducted by Homeland Security Investigations — include a water urn, a door knocker, a soap dish and several gold-plated objects stolen from one of the Baghdad palaces of Saddam Hussein during the 2003 American invasion.
“We are talking about a broad transnational criminal organization that deals in illicit cultural property,” said Brenton M. Easter, a special agent with the Homeland Security Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Many of the items originated with a Dubai-based antiquities dealer who was trying to sell them, with false paperwork, to museums, galleries and art houses in New York, officials said.
Mr. Easter said that several arrests have been made and that federal prosecutions are underway as a result of two of the investigations, known as Operation Lost Treasure and Operation Mummy’s Curse. He said he could not reveal more details because the cases are continuing and are likely to lead to new seizures and possible arrests.
The recovery of the head of the Assyrian statue, representing King Sargon II, provides a bit of an odd twist in the case, Mr. Easter said. The head was seized in August 2008 at the Port of New York as part of a shipment from the Dubai merchant. It is made of limestone and was attached to a huge stone sculpture known as a lamassu, featuring the ruler’s head atop a winged bull. “It’s very gratifying to get this back when you can imagine what would have happened to it if it was still in Iraq,” he said.
Recent images have shown militants from the Islamic State attacking the head of a similar statue in the ancient city of Nineveh with a jackhammer. Other videos have been released showing the destruction of lamassu as well as bas-reliefs and other archaeological treasures in Nineveh and a nearby ancient city,Nimrud.