Global Policy Forum

Looted Iraqi Relics Slow to Surface


Some Famous Pieces Unlikely to Reappear

By Guy Gugliotta

Washington Post
November 8, 2005

More than 2 1/2 years after looters sacked Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities and police forces throughout the world are still searching for thousands of stolen items, including a handful of the most famous artifacts in history. U.S. military sources say forces in Iraq have no systematic way of investigating the missing objects, and in the ongoing insurgency neither U.S. nor Iraqi forces can justify using scarce manpower to guard sites in the countryside, where widespread looting has continued unchecked since the March 2003 U.S. invasion.

Law enforcement organizations worldwide are chasing the lost items, but their representatives said there is no systematic coordination, and they are relying on a shifting set of ad hoc partnerships to bring the thieves to account. Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, charged with recovering the museum treasures in the six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, eventually counted about 14,000 lost items, of which about 5,500 have been recovered.

Perhaps not surprisingly, only a few high-quality looted pieces have reappeared since the end of 2003. Yet paradoxically, although lower-end artifacts occasionally are placed for auction on the Internet, there has been no serious upsurge in public sales of Iraqi antiquities, either in the United States or Europe.

Experts attribute the absence of a market to a combination of factors, none of them verifiable. Tough laws in Britain and the United States may have scared off known dealers, some say, or smugglers may simply have stashed their prizes in warehouses until they think it is safe. Others suggest that it takes a few years for stolen goods to migrate from the Middle East to shops in London, Tokyo or New York. Still others suspect the loot has gone to collectors in nearby states along the Persian Gulf, where Mesopotamian artifacts enjoy a stature they never attained in the West.

Most sources agree, however, that the most famous pieces are too hot ever to be handled again in public. Without sophisticated police work, help from the art world and patience, the only people who will ever see them are the millionaires who buy them on the black market and lock them away.

"I teach about it all the time," said Columbia University art historian Zainab Bahrani, recalling the missing Sumerian black statue of Eannatum, prince of Lagash, one of the earliest royal sculptures to bear an inscription. "I explain why it is important, but in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'It's gone . . . it's gone.' " Bahrani is one of a relatively small number of specialists in academia, the art world and law enforcement who continue to track the fortunes of Iraq's stolen patrimony.

The danger was obvious. Iraq is the birthplace of civilization, where ancient peoples left behind a cornucopia of cultural heritage at thousands of sites over thousands of years. The patriarch Abraham lived in what is today Iraq, and Imam Ali, the founder of Shiite Islam, was martyred there. Two months before the 2003 invasion, a small group of experts warned Pentagon officials about the possibility of looting once the shooting stopped. It had happened in the chaos after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and U.S. forces could expect the same this time, they said.

And so it proved. As U.S. tanks entered Baghdad in April, mobs broke into the National Museum and stole, burned or destroyed everything they could find. It was not as bad as expected because staff members had spirited most of the famous exhibits out of the museum to secret hiding places. But it was bad enough. No one has disputed Bogdanos's figures on museum losses, but he cautioned that the numbers of both missing and recovered pieces will rise as the staff continues to inventory pillaged storerooms.

Outside the capital, looting of known archaeological sites has proceeded unimpeded, and there is no end in sight as long as overburdened U.S. and Iraqi security forces remain preoccupied with battling insurgents. "When Saddam found looters, he killed them," said Bogdanos, a reservist who works as a Manhattan prosecutor in civilian life and who has recounted his experiences in a new book, "Thieves of Baghdad." "We told the Iraqis right away that we weren't going to fly helicopters over the sites and start shooting people."

Bogdanos has compiled the accepted "top 40" list of the most famous pieces stolen from the National Museum. Fifteen have been recovered, including the Sumerian vase of Warka, the mask of Warka and an Assyrian wheeled firebox made of bronze. The Akkadian Bassetki statue, of a boy cast in copper, was found in November 2003 at the bottom of a Baghdad cesspool. The 25 missing items include Bahrani's Sumerian statue, the gold-and-ivory carved plaque of a lioness attacking a Nubian, and the almost life-size head of the Goddess of Victory, from Hatra, made of copper. "You're never going to see these in a gallery," Bahrani said. "No art dealer would ever touch them, because they're just too well known. We're talking about a black market. These pieces will never see the light of day."

The second category includes about 8,000 small items taken from the museum basement in what Bogdanos calls "clearly an inside job." Thieves with keys "cherry-picked" obscure storerooms for pendants, amulets, decorative pins and about 5,000 distinctively Mesopotamian "cylinder seals." These carved finger-sized pieces of stone leave a distinctive design when rolled over soft clay. Each has a museum number written on it in nearly indelible India ink, and the whole collection, Bogdanos said, would fit in a backpack.

These are the most saleable of all the stolen items -- easy to hide and transport, distinctive and authenticated as museum pieces. Most of the high-profile items recovered outside Iraq are cylinder seals, including eight that were voluntarily handed over to the FBI by a returning Marine and three taken by customs agents from journalist Joseph Braude at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Bogdanos, lead investigator in the Braude case, was disappointed by the sentence of six months of house arrest and two years of probation.

Since Bogdanos departed Iraq, U.S. forces no longer have a systematic way to search for artifacts, and the effort has devolved upon an assortment of organizations, including, among many others, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Interpol, the FBI and cylinder-seal experts at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. "There is no coordination," Bogdanos said. "It's based on personal relationships, and when it works, it's a surprise."

But there is little evidence that anyone in the United States or Europe is taking advantage. In fact, whatever market there was for Iraqi antiquities appears to be drying up. "The items that are coming to auction are much better provenanced [authenticated]," said William Weber of the London-based Art Loss Register. "Dealers have to be very careful with this material."

Britain's draconian 2003 Iraq Sanctions Order has put the burden of proof on a dealer to show that an artifact is not stolen. The United States has lifted general trade sanctions on Iraq imposed after the Gulf War but left them in place for cultural property. Neil Brodie, director of the Antiquities Research Center at Cambridge University's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, credits the new British law with the collapse of the London market. "I thought it would go right to New York," he said in a telephone interview, "but it hasn't happened." That is because "people here at the high end understand that this is illegal," said New York lawyer William Pearlstein, who frequently represents antiquities dealers, collectors and auction houses. "We have a very heavily policed antiquities market, and the message has gotten through."

Still, there appears to be no disagreement that looting continues. Until recently, what little evidence there was came from risky field trips by journalists, military reports from the Iraqi hinterland and the occasional helicopter flyover. Stony Brook University archaeologist Elizabeth Stone, however, has been leading an effort to compare "before and after" satellite photographs of well-known sites in southern Iraq, and has found holes "denser than Swiss cheese." The artifacts recovered from these sites are a grab bag that includes some cylinder seals, pottery, clay tablets, stone carvings and other small items. But a lot of it is probably valuable. Where is it going?

Stone suggested that somewhere "there are warehouses bulging at the seams," waiting for vigilance to relax and laws to expire. Pearlstein thinks the artifacts are traveling to "virtually unregulated" markets in the Persian Gulf states. DePaul University's Patty Gerstenblith, an expert on cultural property law, believes the sanctions may have forced thieves to make a cost-benefit calculation. "It will be too dangerous for collectors to buy the well-known items," she said, and not worth the risk for smugglers to sell the cheap stuff.

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