BAGHDAD, Iraq August 7, 2006 -- Iraqi archaeologists and museum officials were delighted last month when the U.S. officially returned one of the most significant statues stolen from the national museum during looting following the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
But because of the ongoing violence, Entemena, the oldest known sculpture of a Sumerian King in existence, cannot be exhibited.
In fact, nobody is quite sure when the statue, which is some 4,400 years old, will actually return to Iraq from the Iraqi embassy in Washington where it now resides. The Iraqi Museum in Baghdad is not only closed, but a brick wall has been built to stop anyone getting in to the museum's main exhibition halls.
The statue in question is of the Sumerian King Entemena of Lagash, about three feet high and sculpted out of black diorite stone around 2,340 BCE. The 300 pound sculpture was excavated near the temple of Ur in southern Iraq in the 1920's.
Along with other priceless artifacts, Entemena disappeared from the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad during the chaos of early April 2003 when U.S. troops entered the city but did not have sufficient numbers nor specific orders to protect the museum. The Iraqi museum contains one of the most valuable collections of ancient artifacts in the entire Middle East.
Since then many of the stolen artifacts have been recovered, but others have disappeared into the shadowy world of art smugglers, private dealers and wealthy collectors who are prepared to pay for stolen art works.
Somehow the heavy statue of Entemena was smuggled out of Iraq to Syria -- sustaining a few chips along the way -- and it was offered to a Lebanese antiquities dealer, Hicham Aboutaam, who runs his business from galleries in Manhattan and Geneva.
Realizing that the statue had been stolen from the Iraqi museum, Aboutaam declined to buy it, even though it would have been worth millions of dollars to a private collector willing to buy stolen goods. Instead Aboutaam provided information to U.S. authorities, who finally tracked it down and took it to the United States in May. The Entemena statue was on the FBI's list of top 10 most wanted stolen works of art in the world.
U.S. authorities decided to return the statue to the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during his recent trip to Washington. But back in Baghdad, Dr Itimad Yusuf, the deputy director of the Iraqi Museum, says she does not know when the statue is coming back.
The museum, located in a particularly dangerous area of Baghdad at the end of the notorious Haifa Street, is closed to visitors.
Even museum staff only go in to work for one or two days a week. The most valuable exhibits have been taken out of the museum and are stored in a vault in the heavily-protected Central Bank. Two months ago a brick wall was put up to prevent access to the main exhibition halls and there is no indication it's coming down soon.