The 5000-year-old alabaster sculpture, a smudge on her cheek but otherwise untouched, came home to the Baghdad Museum on Tuesday.

Also known as the Warka Mask, she topped a list of 30 priceless antiques looted from the museum at the end of the war. Iraq’s most cherished antiquity is believed to be one of the earliest representations of the human face dating from around 3500 BC.

To get back home she went through an ordeal no lady should have to endure, handed around in grubby back alleys and entombed for weeks in a Baghdad backyard before her rescue.

Saviours

Her saviours were a New York policeman and a prosecutor. Members of a military police company, they tracked the mask-like sculpture down to a shallow grave.
 
"She's a little dirtier - who wouldn't be after what she's been through - but otherwise in excellent condition," Captain Vance Kohner told Reuters.

"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"

Captain Vance Kohner,
US military police

Kohner, a US army reservist who normally works as a prosecutor from Queens in New York, and fellow New York policeman-turned-Iraq investigator Sergeant Emanuel Gonzalez, spent months tracing the missing prize through Baghdad's maze of streets and warrens.

She was eventually 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 15cm 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," Kohner told AFP.

The lady vanishes

Dubbed the Lady of Warka and later the Sumerian Mona Lisa, the sculpture vanished about 9 April, the day US troops stormed into central Baghdad.

In the days that followed, world's media attention fell upon the more than 13,500 items reported stolen from the National Museum.

Kohner and Gonzalez both doubted they would ever work on a bigger case.

"This was the number one. With the help of the Iraqi police we found a piece of history," Kohner said.

Historians believe the mask, unearthed by a German expedition in 1938, most likely represents the goddess Inanna, or one of her priestesses.

Jabir Khalil Ibrahim, Iraq's director general of antiquities, said about 13,000 pieces were still to be found, 32 of them of great value out of 15,000 pieces stolen from the collection of 170,000 artefacts.