Expert Thieves Took Artifacts, UNESCO Says


Robert J. McCartney

Washington Post
April 18, 2003

Well-organized professional thieves stole most of the priceless artifacts looted from Baghdad's National Museum of Antiquities last week, and they may have had inside help from low-level museum employees, the head of UNESCO said Thursday. Thousands of objects were lost at the museum, both to sophisticated burglars and to mob looting, said Koichiro Matsuura, director general of the U. N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"Most of it was well-planned looting by professionals," he said in an interview. "They stole these cultural goods to make profits." Museum officials in Baghdad said at an emergency meeting of UNESCO on Thursday that one group of thieves had keys to an underground vault where the most valuable artifacts were stored. The thefts were probably the work of international gangs who hired Iraqis for the job, and who have been active in recent years doing illegal excavations at Iraqi archaeological digs, according to archaeological experts working with UNESCO. Meanwhile, FBI Director Robert Mueller said in Washington that more than two dozen FBI agents have been dispatched to Iraq to help conduct criminal investigations into losses at the museum and other cultural sites. The FBI's artifacts investigation comes amid growing international furor over the ransacking of Iraqi museums and libraries that went unchecked by U.S. soldiers, resulting in the loss of countless items from ancient civilizations.

Three members of the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee said Thursday they have resigned to protest the museum looting. The 11-member committee of archaeologists, museum directors, art dealers and other experts makes recommendations on how the United States can assist other countries seeking to stem illegal trade in their ancient treasures. Martin Sullivan, Richard Lanier and Gary Vikan, all appointed by former President Bill Clinton, said they were disappointed by the U.S. military's failure to protect Iraq's historical artifacts. "The tragedy was not prevented, due to our nation's inaction," Sullivan, the committee's chairman, wrote in his letter of resignation.

Lanier criticized "the administration's total lack of sensitivity and forethought regarding the Iraq invasion and the loss of cultural treasures." Mueller said the FBI teams would aim to capture thieves, recover stolen artifacts and cooperate with Interpol, the international law enforcement organization, to track sales "on both the open and black markets." "We recognize the importance of these treasures to the Iraqi people and . . . to the world as a whole," Mueller said.

At the Paris UNESCO meeting of archaeologists and museum directors, participants agreed to send an emergency mission to Iraq to measure the damage done to the national museum and other cultural institutions. The various moves came as some governments made contributions toward rescuing Iraq's heritage and as museums and archaeologists' associations mobilized to provide experts to help in the effort. Italy has pledged to contribute $1 million. Germany's Archaeological Institute has offered expertise and personnel to help restore Iraq's museums. Matsuura said he had also received offers of financial aid from Qatar, France, Britain and Egypt.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said the museum had offered six conservators and three curators to provide help in the crisis and was coordinating its response with the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and Berlin's museums. UNESCO officials said the group had so far received nothing from the United States, which announced last year that it would rejoin UNESCO after an 18-year absence. The experts meeting in Paris, a group that included Iraqi scientists as well as American, European and Japanese archaeologists with experience in Iraq, said that even moves to prevent the illegal export of looted objects from Iraq would require detailed information on what was stolen from museums in Baghdad and Mosul as well as from libraries, monuments and archaeological sites.

UNESCO officials said a multidisciplinary mission, comprising five or six experts, would leave as soon as it could safely enter Iraq. They said they were awaiting word from John Limbert, the U.S. official named by Secretary of State Colin Powell to coordinate efforts to recover artifacts stolen by looters. Artifacts lost at the museum include vases, statues, gold jewelry and clay tablets that are the earliest examples of writing. The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute has already listed between 2,000 and 3,000 lost objects in a database, according to Professor McGuire Gibson, who is one of the specialists advising UNESCO.

"The most important, best material" was taken by professionals who "knew what they were doing," Gibson said. "Then mobs came in and just marauded." Gibson said the thieves broke heads off some statues, apparently to make it easier to carry them away. Some of the stolen artifacts are so well known that no collector would admit having them. One is the alabaster Uruk Vase, with pictures of grain, sheep, goats and priests dating from about 3500 B.C. It is pictured in many introductory art history books. It's not clear whether the Uruk Mask, a priceless alabaster face of a goddess from the same era, was stolen. A statue of a seated king from about 2000 B.C. was another major loss.

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