A container full of alleged replicas flagged in 2009 turned out to be a hotbed of antiquities from Mali. The US was finally able to complete their return to their rightful owners last week.
Last week, a trove of more than 900 artefacts were returned to Mali by the United States. “US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in conjunction with the US Department of State, repatriated a trove of stolen artifacts to the Republic of Mali Nov. 22,” an ICE news release reads.
Homeland Security agents had initially confiscated the items at the Port of Houston in 2009. They were finally released back to Mali, from the HSI to Mali’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Issa Konfourou.
The stolen artefacts, 921 in total, “consisted of six large funerary urns (from 900CE-1700CE), a comb-impressed red slip double cup vessel (800CE-1500CE), a high-necked polychrome pot (1100CE-1400CE) and 913 ground and flax stones and axe heads from the Neolithic Period (around 10,000BCE).”
The artefacts were brought to HSI’s attention by the CBP in March 2009: “The container, which originated from Mali, claimed to be carrying replica cultural items,” the news release notes. But authorities grew suspicious: “Upon further inspection, the items appeared to be authentic and were covered in blood and fecal matter, which sent red flags to HSI and CBP officials for possible antiquities smuggling.”
HSI Houston consulted with an expert, Susan McIntosh, to see if the articles were authentic or replicas. When she examined them closely, she concluded that “the items were stolen cultural antiquities from the Republic of Mali.”
Thanks to McIntosh’s report, HSI Houston seized the artefacts and initiated the forfeiture process, the news release reports. However, the US couldn’t return the items so easily, because of what the news release calls “a period of civil unrest and economic strain” on Mali.
The US began returning the items in 2009, with “a handful” of goods repatriated in 2011 and 2012 – “though Homeland Security said that a civil war that began in Mali in 2012 prevented the majority of the artifacts from being returned.”
The US later came up with a grant “to fund the repatriation and future exhibition of the objects.” This was in June 2020, when the US Department of State got involved and provided funds to Mali’s National Directorate of Cultural Patrimony. According to the news release, “The exhibition will form part of a nation-wide outreach campaign for protecting and preserving Mali’s archaeological sites.”
“A nation’s cultural property and antiquities define who they are as a people,” HSI Houston Special Agent in Charge Mark Dawson says. “No one has the right to loot or destroy that heritage and history.” As per Dawson, “HSI will continue to work with our partners around the globe to aggressively target anyone who pilfers the priceless cultural treasures of a nation and work tirelessly to return them to their people for future generations to enjoy.”