Unguarded borders allowing antiquities to be taken out of Iraq

Knight Ridder NewspapersApril 29, 2003 

LONDON—While some antiquities plundered from the Iraqi National Museum are trickling home, unguarded borders make it easy to sneak countless cultural treasures out of the country, the institution's research director said Tuesday.

After hearing a dispiriting update on the organized looting that followed the arrival of U.S. forces in Baghdad earlier this month, a gathering of the world's experts in Near East antiquities urged American troops to secure Iraq's frontier and called on the U.N. Security Council to ban trade in Iraqi artifacts.

"Anyone can take anything and go out," said Donny George, research director of the museum that held about three-quarters of the treasures unearthed in Iraq over the past 80 years. "This is a tragedy."

While no one yet knows just how many of the museum's 170,000 items were stolen or vandalized, it has become increasingly clear that the thieves knew what to look for, George told the 45 experts gathered by UNESCO at the British Museum.

Within hours, well-equipped looters had picked through 7,000 years of antiquities, plundering artifacts from the kingdoms of Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia—all of which sprung up in the fertile pocket between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The thieves bypassed copies for invaluable originals, George said, and left behind glass cutters and security keys.

A partial accounting of the most precious missing or broken pieces lists 21 items, from the 5,100-year-old limestone Warka Vase from the ancient city of Uruk to the 12th-century wooden doors from a Mosul mosque.

George blames the American military for not protecting the museum for days while it guarded the ministry of oil. He said a museum employee asked an officer at a U.S. Marine command post to move a tank 50 to 60 yards, closer to the building's entrance to discourage looting.

The officer replied that was not in his orders, George said.

Tessa Jowell, Britain's culture secretary, said she was "shocked" by George's account of the looting, but insisted that despite warnings to coalition forces that the museum needed protection, "we could not have foretold that organized looting would be such a major feature."

It will take time to assess the damage completely. Much was not cataloged. Filing cabinets were rifled and some of their contents burned. Many museum vaults remain unexamined, although they are not expected to yield the best-known treasures. After the news conference, John Curtis, curator of the British Museum's ancient Near East collection, said the vaults were filled with "study collections," materials used for scholastic research.

The United States is receiving daily tips on where other pieces may be found, according to a spokesman for the Central Command in Doha, Qatar. Local religious leaders have asked Iraqis to return what was stolen. "After some negotiation, a man arrived with 46 stolen antiquities, then with eight more pieces, and finally with a 7,000-year-old vase," according to a Central Command statement. A man returned a chest filled with priceless manuscripts and parchments to a nearby mosque. A pianist returned 10 pieces including a broken statue of an Assyrian king dated to the 9th century B.C. and one of the oldest recorded bronze bas-relief bulls, Central Command said.

On Saturday, followers of Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, said they had intercepted a gang of men driving toward the Iranian border with three boxes of antiquities. The statues, busts and tablets were returned to the Baghdad museum.

George told of one Iraqi who slipped into the museum during the looting and grabbed an Assyrian figure from the reign of Shalmaneser III for safekeeping. Once order improved, the neighbor returned the antiquity—but it had broken into three pieces.

The torrent of publicity surrounding the case could actually work against investigators by driving the thieves deep underground where they could wait years, perhaps even decades, before they try to sell their loot.

"We're still dealing with World War II looted artwork," said Lynne Chaffinch, the head of the FBI's art theft program. "We just recovered the Bill of Rights and that was taken in 1865."

Interpol has launched a worldwide hunt for stolen treasures and warned collectors not to buy art treasures they suspect had been stolen. Ronald Noble, Interpol's secretary general, said the agency has been investigating reports that plundered items have shown up in Europe, Asia and the Americas. "It will take a concerted effort by us all to help recover these stolen treasures," he said.

Some experts in art theft question whether tighter border controls are the best way to track down the stolen antiquities.

"Searching everyone is time-consuming and expensive and not-well targeted," Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register in London, said in an interview. "You need intelligence."

The next move, he said, should be to develop a database of the items that were stolen—something the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will be coordinating. Publicizing that list would dry up the market, he said.

The Art Loss Register, funded by art traders and insurance companies, maintains a database of more than 125,000 stolen artworks and antiquities. The group had a gloomy prediction: Only 10 percent of the stolen items would be recovered.

A handful of items—such as the cast copper head of Sargon, the marble lady of Warka and gold vessels from the Royal Cemetery of Ur—are staples in most art books and immediately recognizable to experts.

"These would be so incredibly hot that no one in their right mind would ever buy them unless a collector would keep them in a secret room in their house, and we know people like that," Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Museum at the University of Chicago, said in an interview.

But a vast second tier of valuable items also is missing. And they are not as widely known. If museum records have been destroyed, investigators will be hard-pressed to trace them.

Thieves could move those smaller objects with more ease than the marquee pieces.

Then there are the cuneiform tablets, which contain the oldest known form of writing and are considered key to understanding Mesopotamian society. Many of the priceless clay tablets have never been translated, so all an enterprising thief would have to do is sand off the museum number and polish them, Stein said.

"They are as close to untraceable as you will get," he said. "Once they get out, it will be very difficult to get them back and identify them as stolen."

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The following are details of some of the missing antiquities looted from Iraq after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. These objects were taken from a list of 21 identified as stolen or damaged by the Iraqi National Museum. They include:

_The Warka Vase: A Sumerian ritual vase made of carved limestone from Uruk, Iraq, dating from 3,000 B.C. It displays carvings of a goddess accepting offerings from a ruler or priest.

_The copper statue head of Naram-Sin, which dates to 2,250 B.C. Naram-Sin's reign was the highest point of Akkad culture. He was the first king to designate himself a "god."

_Limestone statue of Hermes, circa 200 B.C. from Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, which existed from 6,000 B.C. to 700 B.C.

_Ivory plaque of a lion attacking a Nubian, circa 850 B.C. from Nimrud, south of Mosul.

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For more information:

World Heritage sites from UNESCO:

http://whc.unesco.org/news/news_170203_tentiv_irak.htm

University of Chicago's site, The Lost Treasures of Iraq:

http://www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/default.html

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(Rubin reported from London, McCaffrey from Washington.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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