x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Help needed to identify artefacts

Customs officials have declined to give details of a priceless haul of ancient artefacts seized as they were being smuggled into Dubai.

A Dubai Customs Officer stands guard at some of  the smuggled antiiquities put on display to the media in Dubai Wednesday, Nov 26 2008.
A Dubai Customs Officer stands guard at some of the smuggled antiiquities put on display to the media in Dubai Wednesday, Nov 26 2008.

DUBAI // Customs officials have declined to give details of the origin or likely fate of a priceless haul of ancient artefacts seized as they were being smuggled into Dubai. The inspectors found 128 items, including pottery, jewellery and coins, hidden behind a false wall in a dhow they boarded in June. It was the biggest seizure of smuggled archaeological items ever in the UAE.

The raid was kept secret until this week. Officials initially said the artefacts, some as old as 5,000 years, were stolen from Iraq. However yesterday officials refused to directly answer questions on the likely origin of the artefacts. The six men arrested in the raid are believed to be from Iran. Mr Ahmed Butti Ahmed, director general of Dubai Customs, said that when they were questioned about where they had sailed from, they changed their answers several times.

"Dubai is a centre for all kinds of legal trade, and in any country where there is a lot of trade you expect these things...We expect people to try and trade illegal things through here," Mr Ahmed said. Mr Ahmed praised the three inspectors who boarded the dhow and decided to knock down the fake wall although the captain of the boat said doing so would cause the dhow to sink. Ali Aldabbagh, the spokesman for the Iraqi government, said his country had not been told of the seizure. "This has been a big problem for Iraq since the time of Saddam. Iraq is known as the birthplace of civilisation and culture, and there has been a lot of damage done to our heritage," he said.

The general security situation made it difficult to stop smuggling. "Last week we found millions of dollars in cash in a bag being taken across the border. Only when we have secure borders will we be able to stop this kind of trade." Joan MacIver, the administrator of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, said there was an international effort to return looted antiquities. "We have to try and make sure that parts of Iraq's heritage that are stolen do go back, but obviously a lot of items are looted and smuggled out with no proper records being made of where they were found. Interpol has a list of things missing from the National Museum in Baghdad, but it is much more difficult when it comes to things taken directly from archaeological sites."

gmcclenaghan@thenational.ae