Museum experts were called by a specialist London police unit after an online sales platform offered the artefact for sale in May last year, with only limited details of its provenance.
Despite the online listing describing it as “a Western Asiatic Akkadian tablet”, the experts determined the limestone wall plaque came from an ancient Sumerian temple dating to about 2400BCE.
The temple had been excavated and looted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, looted again in the 1990s during the Gulf War and, most recently, in 2003 during the Iraq War, the museum said, without specifying when the plaque was taken.
“This important piece was illegally removed from Iraq and discovered by authorities in the United Kingdom,” the British Museum said in a statement.
“Temple plaques such as this are rare and there are only about 50 examples known in existence.”
The London-based institution said the Iraqi government had “generously permitted it to go on display” at the museum before it is repatriated.
“The British Museum is absolutely committed to the fight against illicit trade and damage to cultural heritage,” said its director, Hartwig Fischer.
Jim Wingrave, of the Metropolitan Police, urged antiquities’ buyers to “conduct a thorough due diligence process before every purchase”, particularly when dealing with items from recent war zones such as Iraq.
The British Museum said in July last year that it was working to appraise and return various looted ancient artefacts from Iraq and Afghanistan that had been seized in Britain.
Among the articles it had scheduled for return to Iraq were 154 Mesopotamian texts written on clay in cuneiform script — one of the earliest systems of writing — and seized on entry in 2011.
However, the museum has faced criticism for failing to return some disputed items to their countries of origin, most notably the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, which Greece has long claimed.
It is also under pressure to return other precious artefacts looted during the era of the British empire, including the ornate Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. — AFP