Tuesday, April 03, 2018


Fifteen years after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein, ushering in a period of instability that led to the plunder of the museum while ignoring pleas to secure the building, some 7,000 looted items have been returned, but about 8,000 are still out there. And that’s only counting the items that were stolen from the museum. After the invasion, thousands of other artifacts were taken directly out of the ground at archaeological sites. In most cases, their whereabouts are unknown.

But experts have noticed an uptick in the availability of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts at online retailers since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Now, anyone with broadband and a bit of spare cash can buy one of these artifacts. It’s likely, however, that at least some of the post-2003 internet wealth of Mesopotamian treasures is actually stolen goods. Although a UNESCO convention requires proper certification for objects excavated and exported after 1970, auction websites generally don’t require sellers to make this certification available upfront to prospective buyers.

On the website Live Auctioneers, you can find a stone bull for $50, a clay cylinder seal for $150, a terracotta fragment bearing a god on a chariot for $225, and a large terracotta female idol for $400. On another auction site, Trocadero, a lion-shaped stone amulet is on offer for $250. The point is not that these particular artifacts were looted after the U.S. invasion, but that ancient Mesopotamian objects are very easy to buy online. And it’s extremely hard nowadays to know whether the provenance listed by the seller is accurate—and hence, whether the object has been legally sourced. Both these websites, in their terms of use, forbid users from posting false information, but neither responded to requests for clarifications about how this policy is enforced. Live Auctioneers’ terms prohibit law-breaking, but specify that the site has “no control over the quality, safety, or legality of the items advertised” and cannot guarantee “the truth or accuracy of the listings.” Trocadero notes that it “is not in a position to assume any duty or responsibility to veto reproductions or misrepresentations.”

“It is so, so easy to fake the provenance,” said Oya Topçuoğlu, a lecturer at Northwestern University who specializes in Mesopotamian archeology. “You can say, ‘My grandfather bought this when he visited the Middle East in 1928 and it’s been sitting in our attic since then.’ Or ‘This belongs to the collection of a Swiss gentleman who bought it in the ’50s.’ No one can prove otherwise, and no one will be any the wiser.”

In her recent study of Live Auctioneers, Topçuoğlu discovered that the majority of the items listed on the site are being sold out of London, which has long been a hub for trade in Mesopotamian artifacts. But, she explained, it’s very hard to prove that any given item was looted from the National Museum of Iraq, partly because many of the items stolen from the museum’s storage facility hadn’t yet been inventoried and numbered. “None of the things I’ve seen on Live Auctioneers—and I’ve looked at approximately 2,000 seals that were offered over the last 10 years—have museum numbers on them,” she said. “But the other thing is, you’re really limited to what the seller puts up on the website as a photograph. You don’t have the option to turn it around and look at it from every imaginable angle.”

Iraqi archeologist Abdulameer Al-Hamdani noted that, whereas you might find artifacts selling for $400 online, the properly documented artifacts he encounters tend to sell for closer to $400,000. It’s not that the cheaper ones are counterfeits; alarmingly, they tend to be real. “These Iraqi antiquities are very cheap because people want to get rid of them,” he said. “Maybe because they don’t have documentation for them.”


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