Friday, July 10, 2009
Dutch return 69 stolen antiquities to Iraq
Mike Corder ASSOCIATED PRESS THE HAGUE | The Dutch government turned over dozens of antiquities stolen from Iraq to Baghdad's ambassador on Thursday and urged other countries to clamp down on the illicit trade of artifacts. The 69 pieces include cylindrical stone seals older than 2000 B.C. and a terra-cotta relief depicting a bearded man praying. "These things should not be bought and sold," said Diederik Meijer, an archaeologist with the Dutch National Museum for Antiquities, which will display the treasures before they are returned to Iraq. Mr. Meijer declined to put a value on the artifacts, saying it could encourage illegal trade. Despite efforts to stop the looting of historical sites, such theft is still happening in Iraq. Mr. Meijer showed an aerial photo of an official archaeological dig surrounded by a landscape pockmarked with illegal excavations. Dutch Education, Culture and Science Minister Ronald Plasterk said the ancient artifacts were surrendered by Dutch art traders after police informed them the artifacts were stolen. U.S. customs authorities and Interpol had alerted Dutch officials that the items were being sold here. Mr. Plasterk said the artifacts came from the "cradle of civilization," the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that once was known as Mesopotamia. Among other items Mr. Plasterk handed to Iraqi Ambassador Siamand Banaa was a sawn-out fragment of a flagstone with an inscription of King Nebuchadnezzar dating from 570 B.C. and a decorated nail from 2100 B.C. that would have been used to anchor a building's foundations. "We should cherish and honor the start of civilization in Iraq," Mr. Plasterk said, "and consider it the responsibility of the world to make sure it stays there. These objects lose a lot of their value if they are stolen from their site." Mr. Banaa praised the Netherlands for tracing and returning the stolen goods and said he hoped other countries would "emulate the Dutch example." Looting in Iraq earlier led to an outcry when American troops largely stood by as thieves carried away priceless antiquities from the National Museum in the chaos that followed the 2003 capture of Baghdad. About 15,000 artifacts were stolen from the museum, and the lead U.S. investigator said last year that trafficking in those items helped finance al Qaeda in Iraq as well as Shi'ite militias. Eventually, about 8,500 items were recovered in an international effort that included culture ministries across the region, Interpol, museum curators and auction houses. Jordan, Syria and Egypt were among countries that returned stolen objects to Baghdad, the scientific and literary hub of the Arab world in the eighth and ninth centuries. The museum reopened in February. The U.N. cultural body UNESCO has said of the roughly 7,000 pieces still missing from the museum, about 40 to 50 are considered to be of great historical importance. It was not immediately clear when the antiquities being returned by the Dutch were looted.