She can’t remember the exact date of her kidnapping. But it was springtime when the blur of bodies burst into her home, breaking first the silence, then the stone and glass. Someone rushed at her with outstretched hands, grabbed her head, and pulled. She was whisked outside—brief breeze of warm spring air!—then stuffed into a car. A man carried her to the back of a farm and buried her. It was months before the dirt above her face began to shift. Another pair of hands grabbed her head and pulled. Again outside—autumn air this time. Again into a car. Out the window Baghdad appeared, and then, at last, her home: the National Museum of Iraq.
This is the story of the Lady of Warka, also known as the Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia. A priceless Sumerian artifact dating back to 3100 B.C., it’s the earliest known representation of the human face. It was looted from the museum in Baghdad—along with 15,000 other antiquities—in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Soon after, a tip from an Iraqi informant led American and Iraqi investigators to raid a nearby farm. They found the Lady of Warka intact. In September 2003, it was returned to the museum.
Other artifacts have not been as lucky. Fifteen years after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein, ushering in a period of instability that led to the plunder of the museum while ignoring pleas to secure the building, some 7,000 looted items have been returned, but about 8,000 are still out there. And that’s only counting the items that were stolen from the museum. After the invasion, thousands of other artifacts were taken directly out of the ground at archeological sites. In most cases, their whereabouts are unknown.
But experts have noticed an uptick in the availability of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts at online retailers since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Now, anyone with broadband and a bit of spare cash can buy one of these artifacts. It’s likely, however, that at least some of the post-2003 internet wealth of Mesopotamian treasures is actually stolen goods. Although a UNESCO convention requires proper certification for objects excavated and exported after 1970, auction websites generally don’t require sellers to make this certification available upfront to prospective buyers.