- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner has ordered inspectors and Border Patrol agents to be on the lookout for looted Iraqi art and antiquities that might be on the way to black markets in the United States.
"It is important we work with the new leaders of Iraq to preserve their cultural heritage," Mr. Bonner said in a statement. "Over the years, we have returned millions of dollars in stolen art and antiquities to their lawful owners, and we must work to ensure that none of the looted Iraqi historical pieces make their way into the domestic black market.
"Although I have no specific intelligence that illegitimate collectors in the United States are trying to purchase these treasures, I have requested photos and descriptions of the missing Iraqi National Museum pieces and I will make them available as soon as I obtain them," he said.
Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has a long history of seizing and returning priceless cultural treasures to the people of the country from which they were stolen. More than $30 million worth of art and artifacts has been returned to its rightful owners during the past several years.
Mario Villarreal, a spokesman for the agency, said inspectors and Border Patrol agents have been instructed to be on the lookout for any of the 50,000 items known to be missing from the museum in Baghdad. Looters stole priceless artifacts from the museum in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad to coalition forces.
He said the items include some of the first art and writings known to history, a 5,000-year-old solid-gold harp, 4,000-year-old gold necklaces and bracelets, and various stone and ivory carvings created 2,000 to 5,000 years ago.
Customs and Border Protection has the authority to seize genuine artifacts that belong to a foreign country. Under the U.S. National Stolen Property Act, a person cannot have legal title to art, artifacts and antiquities that were stolen, no matter how many times such items may have changed hands.
Mr. Villarreal said articles of stolen cultural property originating in any of the countries party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention specifically may not be imported into the United States. He said people should make sure to have documentation, such as export permits and receipts, although these do not confer ownership.
With 40,000 employees, Customs and Border Protection became an official agency of Homeland Security on March 1, combining employees from the Department of Agriculture, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol and the U.S. Customs Service.
The agency's top mission is to prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States.
It is also responsible for apprehending people attempting to enter the United States illegally.

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