German court orders return of ancient vessel to Iraq
But the gold vase is still believed to be held in Germany pending an appeal
By Lucian Harris | Web only
Published online 18 Nov 09 (News)
A German court has upheld Iraqi claims over a miniature gold vessel that for the past three years has been at the centre of a tangled dispute involving a Munich auction house, German customs, the Iraqi embassy in Berlin, an archaeologist, and a museum of classical antiquities.
The case, which has focused attention on the sale of smuggled Iraqi artifacts in Germany, began late in 2004 when the slightly dented six-centimetre-high gold vessel was included in a sale at Munich auction house Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger, described as being of Mediterranean origin, possibly from Troy and dated to the Roman Iron-age period (1st century AD). However, the vessel was spotted by an unnamed expert who believed that it was in fact much older and of Sumerian origin.
The Iraqi embassy in Berlin was alerted and subsequently instigated proceedings against the auction house claiming breach of legislation prohibiting the sale of antiquities smuggled out of Iraq. The vessel was confiscated by the Stuttgart Customs Investigations Office and on the basis of a court ruling was handed to Dr Michael Müeller-Karpe, an archaeologist at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz, for expert research and identification.
Dr Müeller-Karpe, agreed that the piece was of Iraqi origin and indeed that it was a rare example of a Sumerian gold vessel, around 4,500 years old and possibly made for a child’s doll house. He speculated that it was likely to have been illegally excavated from the royal cemetery at the much looted site of the ancient Sumerian capital of Ur on the Euphrates river.
The case became the particular focus of media attention earlier this year when it was reported that Dr Müeller-Karpe had refused to return the vessel to German customs officials. This was partly at the behest of the Iraqi embassy in Berlin which believed that the museum was the safest place for it to be held while the legal process played out, however, Dr Müeller-Karpe told DPA news agency that as an archaeologist who regularly carried out fieldwork in Iraq he was concerned that he could become the unwitting victim of strict Iraqi laws concerning the handling of stolen objects and face a possible prison sentence of up to five years. Reports that customs officials were preparing to seize the vessel by force proved spurious and it was eventually handed over by the museum director on 20 July.
The decision of the Finanzgericht or financial court in Munich on 25 September was reached on the basis of a second expert opinion which concurred that the vessel was of Iraqi origin and it was ordered that it should be handed over to Iraqi authorities. It is believed however that the vessel remains in German hands pending an appeal by the auction house.
Dr Müeller-Karpe told The Art Newspaper that he found the actions of the auction house strange considering that it had originally valued the vessel at 1,200 Euros. “This is the equivalent of a lawyer’s fee for one day, I cannot understand why they bother except that for them like us it is a matter of principle”.
The case has been something of a personal mission on the part of Iraqi ambassador to Berlin Alaa Al-Hashimy, whose interest in cultural affairs stems from his background as an architect . In 2007 legislation was passed in Iraq requiring envoys in foreign countries to monitor the appearance of any Mesopotamian artifacts on the commercial market. Furthermore, this August a letter of understanding was signed between the two governments to ensure cooperation in cases where Iraqi artifacts appear on the German market. A recent report on Azzaman news agency claimed that since the court’s ruling Iraqi diplomats in Germany have stopped the sale of 28 Mesopotamian artifacts believed to have been smuggled out of Iraq in the past five years.
In an interview on 7 October Mr Al-Hashimy told Berliner Zeitung that the issue of looted Mesopotamian artifacts on sale in Germany has become of particular concern for Iraq:
“Unfortunately, we have information that make it clear that Germany has become a hub for the illegal international art market and the authorities have not yet done enough to prevent it” he said. “The legal situation in Germany is very unfortunate for us. The burden of proof is too high, especially for objects stolen by grave robbers” he said. “Even an expert opinion with a probability of provenance of 95 percent isn’t enough for the courts. Only previously catalogued objects such as those looted from the National Museum in Baghdad can be easily determined to be stolen”.
Dr Müeller-Karpe concurs with this opinion. I have the impression that other countries have done more than Germany —particularly in relation to Iraq. Until now Germany has returned just one item. This is the bronze axe of the Sumerian king Shulgi which the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier personally delivered to Baghdad in February of this year. The Cologne art dealer who was found in possession of the axe was not prosecuted due to lack of evidence.
However Müeller-Karpe believes that the ruling over the miniature gold vessel may have important ramifications. “If it prevails it could have a tremendous effect on this market. It is not so much the law but how the law is enforced. Stolen items cannot be sold, but you need a lawyer or a judge who takes action and the problem is that no-one has taken a pro-active approach. Of course you could ask why? Laws in Afghanistan or Iran are not much different from Iraq.”
“As long as buyers don’t care where these things come from they are encouraging looting to continue. In Germany you are punished if you buy a stolen car radio, but if you buy a stolen cylinder seal, or clay tablet, you are not.”