Cornell will repatriate 10,000 clay tablets

Jason Felch reported for the LA Times art blog that Cornell University is slated to return an astounding 10,000 clay tablets to Iraq. Some date to the fourth millennium BCE. The collection was donated by Jonathan Rosen. Rosen was a business partner of Robert Hecht for a time. Hecht’s name will be familiar to many, as he was a dealer with deep connections to many likely-looted antiquities.

Many of the thousands of tablets may have been looted after the 1991 Gulf War. Felch reports that one subsection of the tablets were valued at $50,000 when they were imported; but received a whopping $900,000 tax deduction when they were gifted to Cornell in 2000. That in a nutshell is the sad tale of how looted antiquities can pay big for wealthy collectors.

But also, neither Cornell nor Rosen will discuss how these tablets were acquired, or much of anything about their ownership history. Leading to the likelihood that some or all of the objects are stolen, looted, or even fakes.

From the piece:

Harold Grunfeld, attorney for Jonathan Rosen, said all of the tablets “were legally acquired” and that the federal investigation found “no evidence of wrongdoing.” He said the tablets at issue were donated by Rosen’s late mother, Miriam.

“It has always been the Rosen family’s intent that these tablets reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research and for the benefit of the public as a vast informational tool in explaining life in the ancient world,” Grunfeld said.

The Iraqi government requested the return of the tablets last year, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Binghamton, N.Y., is brokering the transfer.

“We’re not accusing anyone of a crime, but we believe they should be returned,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Miro Lovric.

Cornell officials declined to comment pending a formal announcement but issued a statement saying that the university “appreciates the opportunity it has had to participate in the preservation and study of these invaluable historical artifacts and welcomes the opportunity to continue this work in participation with the U.S. and Iraqi governments.”

 

  1. Jason Felch, Cornell to return 10,000 ancient tablets to Iraq, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3, 2013.

2 thoughts on “Cornell will repatriate 10,000 clay tablets”

  1. As you probably know, it is possible to use a special photographic technique (used also on the Antikythera Mechanism) that can greatly improve legibility of cuneiform markings. Do you know if the tablets being returned are first being photographed using the technique? It worked wonders for the Mechanism enhancement. Do you know if it is being used on the collection? (I know the HP scientist who invented the technique and used it on the Mechanism.) The physical tablets are likely to crumble, as they did in the British Museum. I am personally concerned because of possible reinterpretation of the “myth” of Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World.
    Could you tell me who else I could contact about this?
    Clyde Hostetter
    chostett@cox.net

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *