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Rebuilding Iraq

The white marble head of a Sumerian woman from Warka is among the relics feared lost from Iraq's national museum.
Scenes from the looted National Museum

Treasure hunt

For antiquities experts, the chase is on to recover the relics looted from Iraq's National Museum

By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff, 4/15/03

Not long ago, they were digging in the rich soils of the Persian Gulf, archeologists eager to make new discoveries. Now they are heartbroken and angry -- but not altogether surprised. Iraq's National Museum of Antiquities has been plundered. And the scholars who have studied its one-of-a-kind collection of ancient art are wasting no time.

They have to save as much as they can.

They can't put the sculptures, statues, and coins back on the shelves from which they were wrested. But they can put together a database of what was lost in the looting that followed the fall of Baghdad. By gathering as much detailed information as possible, they hope to render unsellable the thousands of artifacts stolen from Iraq's largest museum, one of the region's most important.

The more that is known about the lost pieces, the less likely they will be able to pass into private hands on the black market, scholars and curators say.

"The idea is to keep as much as we can within the borders of Iraq, and then to watch the market, bearing in mind that anything from Iraq that appears in the near future is going to be stolen," said John Malcolm Russell, an archeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art who has worked extensively on Iraqi art. "It's going to take a lot of cooperation, but it would be to the credit of everyone involved."

Since last week's looting, Russell and a University of Chicago professor, McGuire Gibson, have begun working to reclaim all of the objects that may be missing. Through a friend, Russell was able to get a direct line to President Bush's science adviser, John H. Marburger, who asked for a list of what to look for.

Yesterday Russell sent that list, outlining the materials and shapes of potentially looted objects. A spokesman for Marburger's office said the office will "serve as a conduit to get [the list] to proper authorities." And Secretary of State Colin Powell said the US government would work with the United Nations, European Union, and Interpol to punish looters and keep objects from leaving Iraq.

Still, many historians and archeologists remain frustrated with the US government's response. Back in January, the Archaeological Institute of America sent a letter to the Defense Department warning that the National Museum of Antiquities would need protection in case of war. It cited the looting of a group of regional museums in Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991.

But the calls, the experts say, were largely ignored. Without anyone guarding the Baghdad museum, looters broke into display cases and storage areas where curators had hoped to safeguard objects. Television images showed the museum littered with smashed glass and crumbled pottery.

"I can't believe the American army," said Jerome Eisenberg, director of Royal-Athena Galleries in New York and founding editor of Minerva magazine, which covers the antiquities market. "They take enough time watching the statues being torn down but don't give a damn for the ancient statues. All they would have needed is a handful of soldiers, one tank, probably."

Gibson, the University of Chicago archeologist, is spearheading the effort to organize a database of the objects probably found in the museum. About 10,000 items were on display; hundreds of thousands could have been in storage, as virtually every artifact discovered in Iraq in the 20th century passed through the museum.

According to Gibson, an underground market is hungry for the spoils taken from the Baghdad museum. "It's a multibillion dollar industry," he said. "It's not just Iraq. It's Afghanistan, Greece, Turkey, Rome."

With phone lines in Iraq out, Gibson and Russell have been unable to talk directly with their colleagues at the museum. They are left wondering about the fate of the thousands of irreplaceable items. According to Russell, these include a 2300 BC bust of an Akkadian king that is the earliest copper casting ever discovered, a 5,500-year-old stone-faced "White Lady," and the Uruk Vase, a 5,000-year-old alabaster piece that features a ritualistic scene.

"There's nothing else like this collection in the world," said Russell. "We're talking about wiping out the total archives of 10,000 years. That's not just important to Iraqis, it's important to us."

Russell, who went on excavations in Iraq in 1981 and 1989, learned about the extent of the underground market after the Gulf War. That was when the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem asked him to examine an object it had been offered by a dealer. Russell recognized the piece, and others, from his visits to the Assyrian palace in the ancient city of Nineveh in Iraq. He also realized that larger pieces had been broken up into smaller items. Russell estimates that 80 to 95 percent of what is sold on the antiquities market is stolen.

"That's a conservative estimate," he said.

After the experience, Russell made sure to publish his photos of the palace in Nineveh, taken before the Gulf War looting of it and other historic sites.

"As long as they could sell openly, the source would continue to be plundered," he said. "Whereas if you make it known that photographs of every sculpture of the palace has been published, no one has any incentive to loot it further. Since publishing all the sculptures from Nineveh in book form, I haven't seen one come on the market."

Over the weekend, Gibson worked to mobilize an international network of historians and archeologists. He had seen the news reports. Desperate for a more detailed view, he has also been trying to recruit a reporter or soldier to enter the museum so he can call him from a satellite phone. He knows what he's up against: a strong underground market for antiquities that can make it almost impossible to track down certain pieces. But he has a strategy. If the records of the museum are destroyed, he'll rebuild a list through records kept by historians and archeologists.

Each object in the National Museum has been given a seven- or eight-digit accession number. There is also probably a number connected with the archeological dig in which it was found. The question is whether the numbers -- usually written on the bottom of the object in black ink -- have been wiped off or obscured.

Creating a paper trail is key. The records can help museums, dealers, and even border guards identify stolen art.

"And if you can get the photographed records, we're in a much stronger position to help," said Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts. "Technology makes it much easier and faster to move that information around the world."

There are laws to deal with museum looters, including the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, and strict guidelines developed by the American Association of Museums after many institutions were found to have accepted art looted by the Nazis. But lawlessness defines the antiquities market, Russell says. It is why he stopped looking to recover stolen items on eBay long before the fall of Iraq, for example, because he had grown frustrated with the questionable offerings -- cuneiform tablets for $200, cylinder seals for the price of a movie ticket.

Russell has several strategies for reclaiming the museum's holdings, from offering amnesty and a reward to anyone who brings back a looted item to making sure that guards at the Iraqi border look for artifacts. Because once the items leave the country, there's no telling when -- or whether -- they'll be back in circulation.

"Some of this stuff is so famous it can't be sold openly," Gibson said. "It'll be bought by some multimillion dollar collector who will keep it in a vault and look at it every once in a while to make him feel good."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at

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