UK to return looted Sumerian artifact to Iraq

A handout picture released by the British Museum in London on 28 September 2020 shows a Sumerian plaque, dating to around 2400BC, and belonging to the Early Dynastic III period of southern Iraq, that was smuggled out of Iraq and then seized from an online auction site by the UK authorities. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 September 2020

UK to return looted Sumerian artifact to Iraq

  • Temple plaque found in online auction spotted by experts at British Museum
  • Thought to have been stolen from Tello in southern Iraq, site of ancient city of Girsu

LONDON: An ancient artifact that may have been looted before being smuggled to the UK is set to return to Iraq.

The item is a Sumerian temple plaque featuring the seated figure of a high priest or ruler, carved from limestone and dating from around 2400 BC.

It will be sent to Iraq, where it is thought to have originated, after it was spotted for sale and seized by police in 2019 following a tip off by experts at the British Museum in London.

The plaque will be put on display to the public for the next two months at the museum before its repatriation.

Prior to its discovery, no record of the plaque was found in any official record or museum inventory, lending credence to the theory that it may have been looted.

It bears physical resemblances to other Sumerian artifacts discovered at Girsu, one of the world’s oldest known settlements, at modern-day Tello in southern Iraq.

Girsu, originally excavated by French archaeologists from the late 19th century, has also been the focus of researchers from the British Museum in recent years. Even now, only a small part of the site has been successfully excavated.

The trade in stolen and smuggled items of huge value from the Middle East is lucrative, and a constant source of dialogue between the British Museum and international police forces hunting stolen goods.

“We’re used to coming across tablets, pots, metalwork, seals and figurines on the art market or in seizures that have been trafficked. But it’s really exceptional to see something of this quality,” said Dr. St. John Simpson, the museum’s senior curator.

“There are only about 50 examples of these known from ancient Mesopotamia. So that immediately places it on the high-rarity scale,” he added.

“We can be fairly sure that this object comes from the Sumerian heartland. That is the area that got very badly looted between the 1990s and 2003.”

Christopher Wren of TimeLine Auctions, where the plaque was spotted for sale by Simpson’s colleague Sebastien Rey, admitted that it was possible that it had been looted from Iraq. 

“The vendor, who had casually and innocently acquired it from a German arts fair some years ago, was horrified to hear this and immediately volunteered to renounce any claim to ownership and expressed the wish that it be returned to its place of origin,” Wren said.

“The piece is not documented as having been looted and is not listed on any database, so it did not show on the checks undertaken by us.”

Mohammad Jaafar Al-Sadr, Iraq’s ambassador to the UK, said: “We extend our gratitude to the British Museum staff for their efforts and cooperation with us.”


Fire-scarred Notre-Dame to broadcast Christmas concert

Updated 30 November 2020

Fire-scarred Notre-Dame to broadcast Christmas concert

  • An organ will be rented for the occasion, since Notre-Dame’s majestic pipe organ is being carefully dismantled for cleaning and restoration
  • Restoration has reached a milestone with the removal of the last portions of metal scaffolding on the roof that melted into a tangled mess in the fire

PARIS: Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris will echo with song on Christmas Eve as it holds its first choir concert since the massive fire that nearly destroyed the gothic masterpiece last year.
An organ will be rented for the occasion, since Notre-Dame’s majestic pipe organ is being carefully dismantled for cleaning and restoration after the devastating blaze that struck on April 15, 2019.
Since then only two events have been held in the 13th-century landmark — a small mass celebrated in June 2019, and a prayer ceremony last April to mark Holy Friday.
The church remains closed to the public during the renovations.
Michel Aupetit, the archbishop of Paris, said Monday that two soloists would lead the choir and that the concert would be broadcast on radio.
Last week, the restoration reached a milestone with the removal of the last portions of metal scaffolding on the roof that melted into a tangled mess in the fire and threatened to crash to the floor.
That will allow crucial stabilization and protective work to proceed ahead of rebuilding the destroyed roof and spire.
Officials are racing to meet President Emmanuel Macron’s goal of having the cathedral restored within five years.