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Photographs of recovered stone seals

FBI Returns Eight Ancient Stone Seals Looted From Iraq


Some five thousand years ago, the ancient Mesopotamians came up with a clever way to protect their valuables from theft and fraud.

They took small, cylinder-shaped stones and carved intricate, one-of-a-kind designs into them. The stones—when rolled across wax or soft clay that later hardened—formed an imprint or "signature" that marked a piece of property and uniquely identified its owner.

Fifty centuries later, the tables have turned. The same cylinder seals that once helped safeguard ancient valuables are now treasures in their own right—and have been targeted by thieves.

Two years ago, the looting of these seals and other cultural artifacts reached epic proportions in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein. When we were called on to assist, we were ready. We sent agents to Iraq to help with criminal investigations. We issued global police alerts on the potential sale of stolen Iraqi art and artifacts on both the open and black markets. And we publicized the stolen treasures at fbi.gov!

In the meantime, we kept our eyes open in case any of these stolen treasures showed up in the U.S. Recently, we made our first recovery of looted Iraqi artifacts in this country.

Here's how it happened: In late 2003, a U.S. Marine serving in Iraq bought eight stone seals from a trinket vendor for several hundred dollars. He was struck by their designs and wondered if they were important historic artifacts. So when he got back to the U.S., he took them to a university archaeologist, who quickly verified their authenticity and cultural value.

The Marine then did the right thing: he came to us. After doing the necessary legwork, our agents in Philadelphia contacted the Iraqi authorities with the news.

Last Wednesday, in a ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, we officially returned the seals to Said Ahmad, Minister of Iraq's Mission to the U.N. To help educate the public on the looting of cultural objects worldwide, the Iraqi government has agreed to display the seals at the University museum for several months before they are returned home.

At the ceremony, the FBI also unveiled its new Art Crime Team, a group of eight agents nationwide who will serve as regional experts and points of contact for global art theft investigations. Stay tuned for a full story in the days to come!

Links: FBI's Art Theft Program | Press Release | Interpol Stolen Works of Art website

Photograph of recovered stone seals and their imprints courtesy of Lynn Grant, University of Pennsylvania Museum.