The 5,500 artifacts from modern-day Iraq were intentionally mislabeled as clay tiles and smuggled through the United Arab Emirates and Israel, traveling thousands of miles to the United States. There, they landed with their waiting recipients -- the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, and its owners, the Green family, who hoped to spotlight the ancient valuables in their pet project, the Museum of the Bible.
Rampant looting from war-torn Iraq was nothing new, but the international condemnation of Hobby Lobby's move was. In July 2017, Hobby Lobby agreed to a fine of $3 million for smuggling, and in August last year, Israeli authorities seized five antiquities dealers in Jerusalem, thanks to a tip from American investigators looking into the case. In May 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement finally returned 3,800 of the precious goods, passing on cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals and clay bullae to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., which relayed the artifacts back to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.
In the past, such multilateral cooperation may have been impossible. But all that has changed now thanks to an increasing global backlash against stolen antiquities that has pushed internationally renowned museums to refuse loaned collections of questionable artifacts, and investigators who are working together more than ever to crush illegal dealers. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and The British Museum have both turned down loaned collections, owing to their suspicion of questionable transactions, and the renowned owner of the Parthenon Marbles (aka Elgin Marbles) has even planned an exhibit this autumn highlighting how ISIS destroyed and profited from Iraqi heritage. The British Metropolitan Police, meanwhile, has bolstered its antiquities unit, and the FBI boasts a 16-person art crime unit.
In Cambridge, England, a lone wolf named Christos Tsirogiannis has taken it upon himself to scour daily a 30,000-picture database of illegal antiquities, comparing them to the top auction houses of the world to catch illicit ones before they go on sale. And in New York City, one of the largest markets for stolen antiquities in the world, Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine and hard-charging Manhattan assistant district attorney, has become famous for hunting down stolen treasures everywhere from the homes of the wealthy to museums and auction houses that profit off the illicit goods.
Organizations such as the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) and the Heritage Management Organization, associated with the University of Kent, are developing comprehensive strategies to meet the challenge. This year, ARCA created a Minerva scholarship to train heritage workers from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya during a 10-week summer program. Heritage has partnered with local communities to train them in preventing the theft of antique treasures, a model that has worked in the highlands of Crete, says Heritage director Evangelos Kyriakidis.
"If anything is excavated illegally from anywhere in the area, the first people who will stop it are the locals themselves," says Kyriakidis.
The challenge remains massive, with historians trying to recover 8,000 of the 15,000 objects still missing from a 36-hour stealing spree that occurred as U.S. forces marched on Baghdad in April 2003 -- and that was just at the Iraq Museum.
Plus, the process is still rife with hypocrisy. The British Museum did not respond to requests for comment on the oddness of presenting an anti-looting exhibit using Assyrian valuables that almost assuredly came to the Western world through unsavory means (so far, it has accepted loans of artifacts from museums in Paris, Berlin, Cyprus and St. Petersburg, Russia, to name a few places -- and had not reached out to the Iraqi government, according to a July report by Middle East publication, Media Line). And the push for equity from former empire builders like Britain has even become political: In June, U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn promised to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece if elected prime minister in 2022.
Still, the work of the British Museum is spotlighting the need to develop stronger international tactics for dealing with illegal antiquity trading. The November exhibit will include presentations on the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, a pilot project for the U.K. Cultural Protection Fund that will train 50 Iraqi heritage staffers in retrieval techniques.
That training is important because local communities are often neither fully cognizant of the benefits of antiques nor capable of preserving them in challenging circumstances. One way to fully get the buy-in of local communities is for museums and cultural officials to foster an appreciation for local heritage and build a tourism market around it, suggests Kyriakidis. This is particularly important in Iraq, he adds, where ISIS has encouraged a looting market as a way to both fund the terrorist organization and help it earn front-page headlines that aid in drafting new followers.
With the retreat of ISIS in Iraq, though, the returning artifacts are safe once more, say experts. "The situation in Iraq seems to be stable, and it is not very likely they will be looted again," says Kyriakidis. The extra attention has affected dealers, says ARCA CEO Lynda Albertson. "Are they going to hit the market when everyone is staring intently on all pieces with [Assyrian] heritage? Probably not. It's too soon," she says, but warns of a temporary fix. "The world focuses on one. The dealer shifts to another. When the focus changes again, the dealers will shift again."
That's partly why groups like ARCA and Heritage are trying to move beyond a global approach over the past decade that has focused on changing museum practices and policing private collectors, creating a problem where collectors are often seen as "the enemy," says Kyriakidis. In fact, he says, most collectors are careful to buy responsibly, and are incredibly invested in the outcome of the antiquities trade -- after all, they've spent millions to participate in it. In a cooperative effort with the Greek Ministry of Culture, Heritage organized a meeting in 2014 between Greek police and collectors to share information about art deals and clandestine networks.
That model could be replicated in Iraq, Syria and other countries where stakeholders in ancient culture are too often still operating on their own. And it could help the treasures of ancient civilizations like Iraq stay where they belong -- at home.