Sumerian alabaster bull

The Sumerian alabaster bull, seized from the collection of Shelby White, was originally given as a religious offering to the goddess Inanna at her temple at Uruk (now Warka).

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Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg Jr announced that a Mesopotamian limestone elephant and a Sumerian alabaster bull have been returned to the “people of Iraq”.

Valued at $275,000, the objects were reported to have been looted from the ancient city of Uruk, now known as Warka, during the Gulf War and smuggled into New York in the late 1990s.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit supervised the investigation and said the alabaster bull was seized from the private collection of US investor, art collector, and philanthropist Shelby White (who is also on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The limestone elephant was recovered from a storage unit that belonged to antiquities dealer Robin Symes. It is believed to have been stored there since arriving from Iraq.

Limestone elephant

The Mesopotamian limestone elephant, recovered from a storage unit belonging to Robin Symes, is believed to be exceptionally rare. According to the announcement, depictions of elephants were rarely represented in Mesopotamian figurative art, making this limestone figure one of the very few examples to have survived.

The District Attorney’s Office said it would like “to thank Shelby White for her assistance and cooperation with our investigation”.

These repatriations are the latest in a long line announced by the office of the Manhattan District Attorney. Its Antiquities Trafficking Unit was set up in 2018 and since then it has conducted multiple investigations and returned more than 2450 antiquities to 24 countries, valued at more than $230m.

One of its most high profile investigations was announced in December 2021 when hedge fund pioneer Michael H Steinhardt agreed a deal to surrender 180 ‘looted’ items from his collection after a four-year investigation by the unit. (ATG no 2522).

Separately, the Greek culture minister Lina Mendoni announced the return of 351 objects from the collection of Robin Symes this month. Among the artefacts being repatriated is a 2nd-century bronze statue of Alexander the Great.