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'Sumerian Mona Lisa' returned to National Museum

BAGHDAD -- American military police returned the 5,000-year-old "Sumerian Mona Lisa" to Iraq's National Museum yesterday, ending a tumultuous five-month odyssey for one of the most valuable exhibits stolen in the chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The Lady of Warka mask, one of the earliest known representations of the human face, had been at the top of a list of 30 priceless artifacts documenting the early development of civilization, which were looted from the museum as US troops drove into central Baghdad in April.

The hauntingly expressive alabaster mask, largely unscathed despite months of being passed around by shady art thieves and smugglers, came home thanks to a joint Iraqi-American operation that led two investigators from New York to its hiding place in a shallow grave at a farm outside Baghdad.

But as Iraqi culture officials expressed relief at the discovery of this important piece of the world's artistic legacy, they acknowledged the daunting task they faced in finding the thousands of precious items still missing. A thriving smuggling market threatens to ensure that many of the pieces will end up in the hands of international traders, a devastating loss as the world-renowned museum struggles to reopen.

In the final days of the war, looters broke into the museum and stole or vandalized thousands of artifacts from the ancient Mesopotamian kingdoms of Sumer, Akkad, and Babylon, the first civilizations to develop a written language, codify laws, and study the stars.

The day the US-led forces occupied Baghdad, the museum saw an orgy of art theft reminiscent of a medieval sacking, prompting worldwide criticism of the American military for not stopping the looters. US investigators believe at least some of the thieves had inside information about where the most important pieces were being stored. One Iraqi art smuggler said American soldiers were among his many customers trying to cash in on the sale of the relics.

Five months later, much of the museum is still a battered wreck of deserted galleries, smashed and empty exhibit cases, and cracked marble staircases.

Museum officials and American investigators estimate that more than 10,000 artifacts remain missing, though a worldwide recovery effort has turned up 3,500 pieces.

"Some things are safe and we are thankful for this," said Ahmed Kamil, a specialist on cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia, during a private tour of the museum. "But it is impossible to put a value on the things that are gone."

Iraqis returned many of the found items under an amnesty program, including the museum's greatest prize, the Vase of Warka, a white limestone bowl dating from 3200 BC, the oldest known depiction of a ritual in the world.

Before the war, Kamil said, museum workers, fearing damage from bombing, had removed many of the smaller pieces to storage areas. But larger pieces or those bolted to stands like the vase had been merely hidden with canvas covers and left. Looters discovered the delicately engraved 4-foot-tall vase, and tipped over its support stand, shattering into 14 pieces a priceless treasure that had survived intact for five millennia.

"After the vase was returned, the Lady of Warka was item number one on our list," said Jabir Khalil Ibrahim, the museum's director.

Lieutenant Colonel Walid Misil, a spokesman for the Baghdad police, said the mask had been discovered at a farmhouse north of Baghdad. Leading the investigation for the US Military Police were Captain Vance Kohner, a reservist and prosecutor from Queens, N.Y., and Sergeant Emanuel Gonzalez, a New York policeman-turned-Iraq investigator.

The two men spent months tracing the 8-inch-high mask through Baghdad's maze of back alleys and jewelry shops, whose owners sometimes double as stolen antiques sellers.

"She's a little dirtier -- who wouldn't be after what she's been through -- but otherwise in excellent condition," Kohner told reporters yesterday at the museum, where the mask went back on display. "With the help of the Iraqi police, we found a piece of history."

Kohner said whoever stole the mask was probably unable to sell such a well-known item. Historians were pleased to hear of the marble sculpture's return.

"It's one of the most gorgeous pieces of antiquity," said John Malcolm Russell, a Massachusetts College of Art professor who is helping authorities to document the stolen artifacts. "It's as beautiful as any classical sculpture, but 2,500 years earlier, and it's in all the art history books. It's the second-best news after the return of the Warka vase."

The lead US investigator on the missing artifacts, Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, said last week museum insiders most likely made off with most of the loot, breaking into a basement storage room and negotiating a warren of passages to pilfer cabinets full of more than 10,000 valuable cylinder seals, loose beads, amulets, small glass bottles, and jewelry.

The items still missing include the Akkadian Bassetki, a 330-pound copper statue dated at 2300 BC, which looters dragged across the display hall and down the staircase, leaving a brown scar across the tile floor.

Kamil said many pieces, including 5,000 small stone cylindrical seals used by the Sumerians to engrave tablets, have already been sold to eager collectors and are probably lost forever.

One Iraqi art smuggler agreed, saying much of his business in recent months has been the purchase and resale of the seals and clay pottery dating from Sumerian times brought to him by looters and others who happened on the museum items by chance.

"Very few big pieces were smuggled out, but very many small pieces have already been smuggled out of Iraq," said the smuggler, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "You can make a very good living selling these things."

The smuggler said he typically purchases stolen rarities for a pittance -- as little as $50 -- because many of the looters have no idea of the significance of their find. He then resells them to buyers from outside Iraq for up to $10,000 per item.

It is a dangerous business, but easy compared with smuggling under the Hussein regime, when borders were closed and the punishment was death by hanging. Anyone caught these days can get off with a $400 bribe, the smuggler said.

He said that among his customers were American soldiers, who brought him high-quality Sumerian figurines bearing catalog numbers from the Iraqi National Museum, which he bought for $4,000 and sold for $5,000 to "people who took them out of Iraq."

"We don't know where the Americans got them," the smuggler said. "They came back, maybe 25 times."

A coalition spokesman said he had no information about US soldiers selling looted art. However, in April, US customs officials confiscated 15 paintings, gold-plated guns and knives, statuettes, and assorted jewelry from returning soldiers and other Americans coming from Iraq.

Misil said the mask was found at the house of a farmer with "no idea of the value of what he had." He said the breakthrough in the hunt for the sculpture came on Sept. 9, when a teenager told Iraqi police he knew someone who knew where the mask was. "The juvenile led us to an older man, who then passed us on to a man who had the Mona Lisa buried in his backyard adjoining a farm," Kohner said. "We found her wrapped in an ordinary white cotton cloth buried under half a foot of earth in his backyard."

With the mask returned, curators say a security system must be installed, and the mess cleaned up, before the museum can reopen.

Kamil displayed a limestone Babylonian lion that looters decapitated, apparently hoping to find something valuable inside.

Only one room survived the war intact. The Assyrian gallery features huge, intricately carved limestone tablets that decorated the ancient palaces of Nimrud and Nineveh, and 40-ton winged bulls, statues with the heads of men and wings of eagles that appear to be walking when viewed from the side but standing still when seen from the front. The exhibit may open next month.

"This room survived," observed Kamil, "because its contents were too heavy."

Geoff Edgers of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Boston. Material from wire services was also used.

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