Antiquities and Archaeology News USA

Cornell to return 10,000 Iraqi tablets—but won’t say why

Talks are underway to send the ancient objects back, but officials remain tight-lipped about the reasons behind the repatriation

One of the 10,000 tablets going back to Iraq

Cornell University in Ithaca is preparing to return around 10,000 cuneiform tablets to the Republic of Iraq. The tablets, detailing daily life in Mesopotamia during the fourth millennium BC, were a gift to Cornell from the family of the lawyer and antiquities collector Jonathan Rosen and will be handed over to Iraq, say those involved in the negotiations.

News of what will be the greatest return of objects to Iraq in a single exchange was first reported in the Los Angeles Times. Neither the Times nor anyone they interviewed could say why the handover is being discussed now, but an Assistant US Attorney in the Northern District of New York State confirms that talks are underway, involving Cornell, the US Justice Department, Jonathan Rosen and Iraqi officials.

“We are engaged in discussions with Cornell University and Iraq in order to try to come to a resolution by which the tablets can be returned on a certain schedule to Iraq,” says Miro Lovric, an Assistant US Attorney. The Iraqi government requested the return of the tablets last year, he says, but there have not been any criminal charges involving the objects.

There have been no allegations of wrongdoing by Cornell or by Jonathan Rosen, who formerly co-owned a gallery with the late antiquities dealer Robert Hecht. Iraqi officials in the US did not respond to requests for comment, although a Cornell spokesman says that relations between the university and Iraq concerning the objects’ return are amicable. “The talks are still underway, so it’s too soon to tell, but that is everyone’s hope, and it’s certainly our hope,” the spokesman says. He would not comment, however, on why Cornell decided to hand back the tablets.

A statement that the university released on 13 September announced: "Cornell University is proud of the work done on the historically significant collection of Iraqi cuneiform tablets that have been at Cornell and under study since 2000. While the cuneiform tablets have been at Cornell, scholars have participated in a project to conserve the tablets and publish them, not only for historic preservation but also for the research and cultural benefits of the Republic of Iraq.” The statement added: "The collection at Cornell has no connection to artifacts that may have been looted from the national museum in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.”

The tablets first reached Cornell through a donation by Rosen (The Art Newspaper, September 2003), for which the collector took a tax deduction of $800,000. At the time, Yale University was said to have turned down the gift, wary of its provenance.

Rosen’s lawyer, Harold Grunfeld, would not discuss details of the arrangement, but says that Rosen always wanted to leave the objects to be studied in a public collection. “We don’t have any great objection to them going back to Iraq, or to any public institution, be it in Iraq or here in the States,” he says. He notes that no other institutions that received donations from Rosen of material originating in Iraq were coming under US or Iraqi government scrutiny. On its web site, the Morgan Library and Museum describes a 1986 donation of Mesopotamian cylinder seals from Rosen as a “major gift”. A spokesman for the Morgan says the museum has not been approached by the Iraqi government about any of Rosen’s donations.

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