A legal dispute surrounding an antique golden vase being held in a museum vault in Mainz shines light on the surprisingly important role Germany plays in the often shady world of antiques trading.
The case sounds more like an esoteric crime novel than a simple legal tussle, involving as it does archaeologists, rare-coin dealers, customs officials, and the Iraqi embassy in Berlin.
At its heart is a golden vase just six centimeters high that may or may not have its origins in ancient Mesopotamia.
The vase is currently being held by Michael Mueller-Karpe, an archaeologist at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz, Germany. Three years ago he was charged with providing the court with an expert opinion on the provenance of the object, which is at the center of a lawsuit over fencing illegally trafficked goods.
Archaeologist refuses to comply
Now Mueller-Karpe is ignoring a court order, and refuses to turn the vase back over to the customs officials who confiscated it. The Iraqi embassy in Berlin has asked him not to, he says. Apparently they believe the object is safer where it is.
The Iraqi embassy told Deutsche Welle, however, that they were making efforts to reclaim the vase. A "Letter of Understanding" had recently been signed by both Iraqi authorities and the German ambassador to Iraq to ensure cooperation in cases where Iraqi relics appeared on the German market.
Contrary to reports in the German media, the Stuttgart Customs Investigations Office is not about to break into the vault at the Roman-Germanic museum and grab the vase by force.
"I don't know how that rumor got started, but it's not true," said Dieter Peulen, the acting director of the Stuttgart Customs Investigation Office.
He would, however, like to get the object back.
"I've never seen anything like this before," said Peulen. "At the moment, [the vase] has been confiscated by customs. [Mueller-Karpe] doesn't own it. In my opinion, the court has requested him to give it back, and he should do so."
The vase showed up in Germany years ago in the catalog of a Munich auction house, designated as a Mediterranean piece from the Roman Iron Age. But someone familiar with Mesopotamian art spotted it, and sued the auctioneer for breach of the Foreign Trade Law.
Stolen objects transit through Germany
As part of the suit, customs officials brought the object to the museum in Mainz to have its provenance checked.
Mueller-Karpe said the vase is "most probably" around 4,500 years old, and believes it was stolen by grave robbers from the ancient royal cemetery in the city of Ur, Iraq. Its provenance may be researched further as the case moves through the courts, said customs official Peulen.
International traffic in antiques and artefacts from Iraq has bloomed since the fall of Saddam Hussein. According to the Spiegel Online newsmagazine, of the 15,000 pieces that were robbed from the National Museum in Baghdad in the wake of the US invasion in 2003, just 6,000 have been returned. Many of the missing objects - and more stolen from grave robbers around Ur - make their way through German auction houses at some point on their travels.
Indeed, the case sheds light on Germany's overall role in both antiques trading and antiques trafficking - a distinction that is often hard to make when it comes to the sale of ancient objects, experts say.
'Unfortunate' legal situation
Germany was the last industrial country to sign a UNESCO convention on protecting cultural heritage, and its loose demands for documentation on exports of some ancient objects seen as being friendly to fencers and smugglers.
"The legal situation in Germany is very unfortunate for us," the Iraqi culture attache in Berlin told Spiegel Online. The burden of proof, "especially for objects stolen by grave robbers," is too high, he said. "Even an expert opinion with a probability of provenance of 95 percent isn't enough for the courts."
According to Mueller-Karpe, the two-handled vase - which he believes is a "miniature version" of a Sumerian-era vase that would have served a functional purpose - remains in the museum for the time being.
He told dpa news agency that it would be too dangerous for him to give it back to customs authorities, since the Iraqis have threatened that anyone who is involved in helping fence stolen goods could face a sentence of up to five years in Iraq.
Since he is frequently on archaological digs in Iraq, Mueller-Karpe said, the sentence threat means he would lose his opportunity to work.
Author: Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Kate Bowen