PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (Reuters) -- The Federal Bureau of Investigation unveiled a new unit on Wednesday to tackle the multi-billion dollar market in stolen art and announced the FBI's first recovery of artifacts looted from Iraq after the U.S. invasion.
The objects, eight Mesopotamian stone seals about 5,000 years old, were purchased in Iraq by a U.S. Marine as a souvenir of his tour of duty. He handed them to the FBI in Philadelphia after an archeologist confirmed their authenticity and said they had been stolen from one of Iraq's many archeological sites.
The Marine paid a trinket salesman about $300 for the seals, whose total market value is estimated at $30,000. "He got a very good deal," said FBI agent John Eckenrode, who declined to identify the marine.
The international market in stolen artifacts is worth as much as $8 billion a year, and is comparable in size to the market for illegal drugs, Eckenrode said.
The FBI's Art Crime Team, consisting of eight agents, will work with similar agencies in European countries that, like the United States, are prominent markets for stolen art.
The Iraqi seals were returned to Said Ahmad, an official from Iraq's mission to the United Nations, in a ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The tiny objects, measuring no more than three centimeters in height, will be displayed by the museum for the next three months before being returned to Iraq.
Richard Zettler, associate curator of the museum's Near East section, said the seals were used to imprint a pattern or name on some soft material such as clay, and establish ownership or authenticity of some possession.
"When I was digging in Iraq many years ago, finding a cylinder seal made our day, so finding eight is even more exciting," he said.
Around 15,000 ancient artifacts are missing from numerous sites around Iraq because of looting, Ahmad said.
Looting is a long-standing problem in Iraq as local people are eager for the high prices that international collectors will pay, but it has intensified in the chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein, museum officials said.
In Europe, some 60,000 objects are stolen each year, many from churches and museums, according to the FBI. In China, antiquities are now believed to be the largest category of objects smuggled out of the country, the agency said.