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Finland refuses to return artefacts to Iraq

Finland's National Museum has refused a request from the Iraqi Embassy to return a number of ancient artefacts that were presented as gifts to the late President Urho Kekkonen in 1977. The museum says that the items now in its collection were obtained legally. 

Finland refuses to return artefacts to Iraq
 An Iraqi delegation made a gift of several artefacts to President Kekkonen in 1977. Among them is this clay nail, or dedication nail, inscribed with cuneiform characters which is over 4,000 years old [Credit: Yle]
Many ancient artefacts were plundered in Iraq during the most recent conflicts, with some turning up in collections in other countries. A decade ago, the UN urged its members to return any of these stolen pieces of Iraq's heritage, and thousands have found their way back.

However, the items in the collection of the National Museum in Helsinki were not removed from the country during the recent conflicts.

In April, the Director General Helena Edgren at the National Museum of Finland received a letter from the Iraqi Embassy in Helsinki in which the Ambassador presented a request for the return of six items.

The unusual request led to a thorough investigation into how the artefacts came into the museum's collection. Officials looked at information from records at the Office of the President, and the Urho Kekkonen Museum.

Gifts to Kekkonen       

In August 1977, the Amos Anderson art gallery in Helsinki saw the opening of a "Land of Two Rivers" exhibition of ancient art from Iraq. The opening coincided with the visit of an Iraqi delegation that included the country's Information Minister Tariq Aziz, and Iraq's chief state archaeologist. 

Finland refuses to return artefacts to Iraq
A rare, but not unique incantation bowl was on the list of items requested for return [Credit: Yle]
The Iraqi group met with President Kekkonen both at the opening of the exhibition and at his residence. During the visit to his residence, the delegation presented President Kekkonen with a number of objects as gifts. These same items are those that the Iraqi Embassy has asked to be returned.

In the autumn of that same year, President Kekkonen donated the artefacts to the National Museum which added them to its general ethnographic collection.

Request rejected

The National Board of Antiquities reviewed applicable laws and international regulations regarding the case, as well its ethical aspects. 

Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Culture pointed out that the request was not official, as it did not originate from the Iraqi government.

The conclusion reached was that the items were legally obtained and there is nothing suspect about their entry into Finland.

Earlier this month the directors of the National Board of Antiquities decided that there is no need to comply with the request to return the artefacts.

The request to the National Museum was received just a little before the ambassador who made it ended his tour in Finland and left the country. Yle was unable to interview the ambassador before his duties ended, nor has permission been received to conduct an interview at a later date.

A new Iraqi ambassador will be taking up the post in early June. Other personnel at the mission have declined to comment on the issue.

Source: yle uutiset [May 30, 2013]

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