An ancient sculpture is to be returned to Iraq after it was secretly smuggled out of the country and offered for sale in the UK – only to be seized by the Metropolitan police.
The previously unknown Sumerian temple plaque – dating from about 2400BC – is being repatriated with the help of the British Museum, which first tipped off the police after spotting its planned sale in 2019.
“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 British Museum’s senior curator. Neither published nor listed on any museum inventory, it is thought the plaque was looted from the Sumerian heartland in modern-day southern Iraq.
Simpson said: “There are only about 50 examples of these known from ancient Mesopotamia. So that immediately places it on the high-rarity scale. 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.”
The plaque was offered for sale in May 2019 by TimeLine Auctions, an online auctioneer which had described it as a “western Asiatic Akkadian tablet” which had come from a private collection formed in the 1990s.
Simpson said that its date, description and provenance were incorrect: “It’s Sumerian, not Akkadian, and definitely not a tablet. They also assumed it was 200 years later.”
It was in fact part of a votive wall plaque belonging to the Early Dynastic III period of southern Iraq. Carved from local limestone, it depicts a large seated male figure in a Sumerian form of long skirt, known as a kaunakes, with a tufted pattern.
Simpson described the figure as either a high priest or a ruler, as he holds a ceremonial goblet in his upraised right hand, while his left holds a palm frond on his lap. He sits on a decorated stool. The artefact bears traces of burning, a feature found on previously excavated finds at Girsu, one of the world’s first urban civilisations, on the site of modern-day Tello in southern Iraq, where the British Museum has been carrying out archaeological training and excavations.
Such is the plaque’s importance that, if it could be sold on the legitimate market, it would fetch tens of thousands of pounds.
Simpson said that it appears to have been intentionally torched: “The scorch mark was aimed at this important figure and then the plaque has been smashed. Where we have been working at Tello, the looting holes are heaviest in some of the religious precinct areas. I strongly suspect that, with luck and time, someone may find the adjoining fragments.”
Although Tello has been excavated by French teams from the late 19th century until the early 1930s, and then by the British Museum, only a fraction of the site has been investigated. It is now heavily guarded until archaeologists can resume work.
Simpson said that his colleague, Sébastien Rey, curator of ancient Mesopotamia at the British Museum and lead archaeologist at Tello, had first spotted its planned auction: “We contacted the police, who immediately took it seriously and went to the auction house who relinquished it when they realised what it was.
The British Museum is the UK’s main advisory body for enquiries over illicit trafficking or export licensing of antiquities, and it works closely with government departments including the UK Border Force.
In January, the British Museum repatriated a 2nd century AD sculpture of two bulls that had been stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan in the 1990s. It too had been offered by TimeLine Auctions until its sale was reported to the police.
Christopher Wren of TimeLine Auctions said of the Sumerian plaque: “The piece is not documented as having been looted and is not listed on any database, so it did not show on the checks with the Art Loss Register and other sources undertaken by us. TimeLine Auctions always seeks to assist in the recovery of illicit antiquities and we have been instrumental in a number of cases where it has been our own checks that have directly enabled items to be reclaimed.”
In informing the vendor “that it was possible, perhaps likely, that the piece could have been looted”, he added: “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”.
In a statement, Mohammad Jaafar al-Sadr, ambassador of the Republic of Iraq, said: “We extend our gratitude to the British Museum staff for their efforts and cooperation with us.”
The sculpture will be displayed at the British Museum for two months before being returned to Iraq.