U.S. Returns Over 900 Confiscated Artifacts to Mali

US officials said on Monday that more than 900 artifacts intercepted in an illegal shipment were returned to the Mali government. Homeland Security agents originally confiscated the items, which included ceremonial and funeral objects, some dating back to the Neolithic period, in the Port of Houston in 2009.

Officials described the discovery of the port, one of the country’s busiest, as the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack.

“A nation’s cultural properties and antiquities define who they are as a people,” Mark Dawson, the investigator who supervised the research, said in a statement Monday. He added, “No one has the right to plunder or destroy this heritage and history.” According to the statement, Homeland Security agents will “vigorously target anyone who steals the priceless cultural treasures of a nation.”

The artifacts’ journey began in March 2009 when US Customs and Border Protection alerted the Investigative Branch of Homeland Security of a suspicious container in the port. The container originated in Mali with papers claiming to contain copies of cultural materials. Upon inspection, the items appeared to be original. Susan McIntosh, an anthropologist at Rice University, did research on the archeology and released a report later that year.

Homeland security officials said the United States in 2011 began the process of returning the artifacts to Mali, but efforts stalled when the West African nation plunged into a period of civil unrest and economic stress. In June 2020, the State Department gave Mali a grant to fund the return of the artifacts and its final exhibition there.

“We pay a lot of attention to culture,” Mohamed Traore, adviser to the Permanent Mission of Mali to the United Nations, said in an interview. “We considered these things a part of our history that just doesn’t exist anymore.”

Traore said US authorities notified the Malian government to return the looted artifacts this year and that repatriation negotiations have since resumed. He explained that the artifacts, which were handed over to diplomats on Monday, will be immediately returned to Mali, where they will be evaluated by the country’s Ministry of Culture. He added that their final destination would be museums, “including the National Museum of Mali in the capital, Bamako.”

Mali’s financial regulations require anyone seeking to export artifacts to submit items for approval by the National Museum. Since 2007, the United States has supported an agreement with Mali to protect cultural property. But in the past decade, the country has seen an increasing looting of its cultural heritage by terrorist organizations and local militias. A series of coups also weakened the government’s ability to enforce the law. Earlier this year, military officials ousted the country’s interim civilian leaders just nine months after forcing the former president to step down.

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