Iraqi's most cherished antiquity, the 5,000-year-old Warka Mask, returned home Tuesday safe and sound after being looted during the anarchy that accompanied Saddam Hussein's fall in April.
Captain Vance Kuhner said the mask was found after an intensive search by US troops and Iraqi police which led them to a farm just north of Baghdad where it was discovered buried under six inches (15 centimetres) of dirt.
"A tip-off came to the museum, we were given an address that led us to a juvenile, then an older man and eventually the culprit. Then it took a week of negotiations," Kuhner, from the 519th Military Police Battalion, said.
"It's pretty much untouched. We believe it changed hands several times after its theft. It is still in excellent condition."
Also known as the "Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia," the 20-centimetre (eight-inch) high limestone sculpture, dating from 3,100 BC, depicts the head of a woman and was returned to Iraq's National Museum in a formal handover.
It was fashioned in the southern city of Warka during the Sumerian period, and was among the five most precious pieces still missing since the museum was ransacked after the April 9 fall of Saddam.
The recovery was praised by Iraq's culture minister Mufid Mohammad Jawad al-Jazairi, who proudly held the mask and posed for photographers.
"Now it is very important that this work continues," he said. "We hope to recover all the stolen pieces from around the region and we hope from now on the Iraqi people will protect their heritage."
Historians believe the mask, unearthed by a German expedition in 1938, most likely represents the goddess Inanna, or one of her priestesses.
It is also known as the Lady of Uruk or the Warka Head.
Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, Iraq's director general of antiquities, said about 13,000 pieces are still to be found, 32 of them of great value out of 15,000 pieces stolen from the collection of 170,000 artifacts.
Kuhner, a reservist and prosecutor from New York, said his team would focus on the list of top 30 missing artifacts issued by the US Customs Department in the wake of recent successes.
This included the discovery of two 12th century swords, found in a Baghdad flower shop. One apparently belonged to Salahadin, the legendary Islamic warrior.
Fifteen cylindrical stamps for wax seals dating to the second and third centuries have also been recovered.
"Every time we receive a tip we immediately dispatch two teams of US troops and two teams of Iraqis to investigate," Kuhner said, adding techniques he developed as a New York prosecutor had helped in recovering the lost treasures.
Ibrahim also appealed to countries outside of Iraq to crack down on thieves and ensure that any antiquities belonging to Iraq are sent back if found.
He said the return of the Warka Mask was proof that efforts to recover the stolen property from Iraq's museums were effective.