A 4,000-year-old artifact turns up at O’Hare. Stolen property or museum piece?
By Tom Hundley
November 9, 2008
On April 11, 2003, three days after American tanks rumbled into Baghdad and the day after looters swarmed the Iraq National Museum
like a plague of locusts, Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon press corps enjoyed a little laugh at the expense of Iraq’s catastrophe.
“The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out
of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times and you think, ‘My goodness, were there that many vases?’ Is it possible that
there were that many vases in the whole country?” the defense secretary asked with mock astonishment. This was vintage Rumsfeld, and
the journalists chuckled appreciatively. The looting would continue for two more days.
McGuire Gibson, a man who may know as much about ancient Mesopotamian archeology as anyone on the planet, was horrified by the
events in Baghdad and by Rumsfeld’s cavalier attitude, but he wasn’t particularly surprised. In the months leading up to the U.S.
invasion, the distinguished University of Chicago scholar had repeatedly warned the Pentagon and State Department about the
likelihood of looting. n The warnings fell on deaf ears. n I had been hearing about the legendary Mac Gibson for years, but I did
not meet him until a month after the ransacking of the museum, when I was in Baghdad as a Tribune correspondent and he traveled to
that benighted city to inspect the damage for himself.
Glass from shattered display cases crackled underfoot as we walked the museum’s devastated galleries, Gibson with the aid of a cane,
which he occasionally used as a pointer.
“This chunk of rock is extremely important. We were very worried about it,” he said, indicating a 5,000- year-old carved frieze that
the looters had ignored. “It shows a guy killing a lion with a bow and arrow. It’s important because it is one of the earliest
examples of someone acting like a king. All through history, this is what kings do. They hunt,” he explained.
Gibson, who is 69 and can sometimes come across as ornery, has been sifting through the ruins of Iraq’s ancient civilizations for
more than four decades. He is president of the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq. His first dig in the country was in
1964, and he has been back pretty much every year since then.
After the walk-through, Gibson pronounced his verdict: “We dodged a bullet.”
This didn’t appear to jibe with the mess that I had just seen, but at the time Gibson knew much more about the precarious state of
Iraq’s archeological heritage than the media or the general public. He knew, for instance, that some of the museum’s most precious
treasures had been stored for more than a decade in the basement vaults of Iraq’s Central Bank. He also knew that something far
worse was afoot, that the sack of the National Museum was only a symptom of a much more serious crisis that had been building for
more than a decade, ever since Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the first Persian Gulf War, a crisis that would soon reach a new
At the close of the war in 1991, as Saddam fought off insurrections from the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, the
U.S. government imposed a no-fly zone over large swaths of Iraq. This, along with strict UN trade sanctions, created a kind of
perfect storm. With the weakened Baghdad regime unable to control large parts of the country, impoverished Iraqi villagers—often
with the blessing of village elders—turned to the only source of income available to them: scavenging the hundreds of archeological
sites that dot the landscape between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
In some areas, the trade in looted antiquities accounted for almost 85 percent of local economic activity. Meanwhile, a weak U.S.
economy at the end of George H. W. Bush’s presidency was encouraging the truly rich to look for alternatives to stocks and bonds.
Art and antiquities fit the bill. As supply obligingly met demand, the market for Mesopotamian antiquities blossomed. Within months
of the war’s end, a treasure trove of Mesopotamian antiquities began to show up in the gilded display rooms of auction houses in
London and New York, no questions asked.
“In the 1990s, you couldn’t buy a bag of dates from Iraq, but you could buy almost any antiquity you wanted,” Gibson said during a
recent interview at his musty, book-cluttered office on the second floor of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.
In the years since the first Gulf War, the ransacking of Iraq’s archeological heritage has proceeded at a breathtaking pace. If it
has slowed slightly in the last year or so, it is only because the market has become saturated. Archeologists have decried this as a
terrible loss to all humanity. Museum directors, whose institutions are the repositories for the most important archeological finds,
agree. But a war of words has broken out between the two camps. Archeologists argue that major museums and the wealthy private
collectors who often sit on their boards have hastened the destruction of archeological sites by their willingness to pay high
prices for objects that have almost certainly been looted. The museum directors and private collectors contend that by rescuing
these artifacts from the vicissitudes of the black market they are giving safe shelter to the historical patrimony of all mankind.
The high-end trade in illegal antiquities is centered in New York and London, but Chicago has emerged at the vortex of the debate.
Earlier this year, the Oriental Institute mounted an important exhibition called “Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s
Past.” It will run through the end of the year. On the other side of the argument, James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of
Chicago, has recently published a book called “Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage.” In it, Cuno
reflects on the meaning and origins of culture, and attempts by government to manipulate culture for political advantage. He also
suggests that archeologists are a self-interested group guilty of working all-too-cooperatively with the dodgy regimes that happen
to rule the territory where some of the world’s most significant archeological sites are located.
As president and director of the Art Institute, Cuno presides over a world-class art collection that cuts across the centuries from
the ancient to the modern. With thousands of masterpieces to choose from, one of Cuno’s favorites is a 14th-Century German
monstrance, an 18-inch-tall silver reliquary whose design resembles a Gothic church. Its focal point is an exquisite rock crystal
bottle that contains a tooth said to belong to John the Baptist. The bottle, made in medieval Egypt during the Fatimid Caliphate,
was originally a vessel for perfume. With the collapse of the Fatimids, it probably ended up in Constantinople, and from there was
carried off to northern Europe after Crusaders sacked Byzantium—a textbook example of cultural cross-fertilization producing an
“Here you have a secular object, made in a Muslim context, transformed into a sacred reliquary for the holiest of Christian saints,”
The lesson, he says, is that culture doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Items such as the monstrance demonstrate what he describes as the
“hybridity and interrelatedness” of the world’s cultures.
“My argument is that there is no such thing as autonomous culture,” he says. “Culture has never been ethnically pure; culture is not
Cuno, 57, is a compact man who inhabits a spacious and tastefully decorated office at the Art Institute. Soft-spoken and solicitous,
he carries himself with the air of a slightly distracted Ivy League professor. He arrived in Chicago four years ago after stints as
director of the Harvard University art museums and the University of London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art.
Earlier this year, Cuno was on almost everyone’s shortlist to become the next director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art
after the aristocratic and long-reigning Philippe de Montebello announced that he was stepping down. Although the Met ultimately
picked one of its own curators for the post in September, Cuno’s book, which features a photo of the heavily guarded entrance of the
Baghdad Museum on the front cover and a ringing endorsement from de Montebello on the back, was seen by some as a not-so-subtle
pitch for the job. As it turned out, the controversy that has grown up around book may have hurt his chances.
The book is a spirited attack on what Cuno calls “nationalist retentionist cultural property laws.” These are the laws that
virtually every country in the world uses to protect its archeological sites and claim sovereignty over culturally significant
artifacts on its territory. Most of these laws are based on the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the
Event of Armed Conflict, which has been signed and ratified by 93 nations (but not the U.S.), and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the
Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, signed and ratified
by 111 nations (including the U.S.).
Cuno argues that cultural property laws are chauvinistic and elitist, and that governments use these laws to impose a bogus national
identity on cultural objects. The result, he says, is that the world’s ancient artistic legacy is in danger of being held hostage to
the nationalist agendas of petty tyrants.
No doubt when despots and dictators (and even some democrats) draft cultural property laws, the words they use tend to imbue the
past with a lot of pumped-up nationalistic blather. Look no further than Saddam, who once declared the treasures of ancient
Mesopotamia to be “the most precious relics Iraqis possess, showing the world that our country [and the Baath party are] . . . the
offspring of previous civilizations which offered up a great contribution to mankind.” To drive home the point, Saddam commissioned
a giant wall-carving, executed in the style of ancient Babylon. It shows the Iraqi dictator shaking hands with Hammurabi, first king
of the Babylonian empire.
Cuno mocks the Iraqi dictator’s hubris. “Whatever it is, Iraqi national culture certainly doesn’t include the antiquities of the
region’s Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian past,” he tells us in his book. And the Iraqis, he adds, are hardly the only usurpers of
someone else’s culture.
“What is the relationship between, say, modern Egypt and the antiquities that were part of the land’s Pharaonic past? The people of
modern-day Cairo do not speak the language of the ancient Egyptians, do not practice their religion, do not make their art, wear
their dress, eat their food, or play their music, and they do not adhere to the same kinds of laws or form of government the ancient
Egyptians did. All that can be said is that they occupy the same (actually less) stretch of the Earth’s geography,” he writes.
He goes on to ask what credible claim Lebanon or Libya can possibly lay to the ancient Roman ruins found within their modern
borders, or for that matter, what does the modern nation-state of Italy, which only came into being in 1946, have to do with the
Roman and Etruscan civilizations that once inhabited its land.
None and nothing are Cuno’s answers. The treasures of antiquity belong to mankind and must be preserved and shared accordingly. And
this, according to Cuno, is where archeologists have got it all wrong.
Archeologists generally support national laws that strictly regulate commerce in antiquities and access to archeological sites. They
do so because they see it as the best way—really the only way—to protect these places and objects from looters and the lucrative
black market they serve.
But Cuno says the archeologists’ position is selfish, shortsighted and even immoral. The archeological community, he argues, goes
along with restrictive cultural property laws only because the governments that make these laws control “the goods”—the sites and
objects that are vital to the archeologists’ livelihood.
According to Cuno, the archeologists’ complicity not only limits the public’s access to cultural treasures, but also aids and abets
despots like Saddam who use the mythology of the past to prop up their regimes.
“Oh no, they say, we do scientific work; we have no control over how it is used,” Cuno argues. “Well, I’m not a moral philosopher .
. . but I think there is a question of the morality of working with a blind eye to the despotic practices of certain regimes.”
In the larger debate about who owns antiquity, Cuno’s attack on archeologists is a bit of a sideshow. They attack him; he attacks
back. His real target is the expanding body of cultural property law that is forcing museums—most notably the Met in New York, the
Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts—to return ancient artifacts that were illegally removed from their
country of origin.
Cuno fervently believes that museums, especially the so-called encyclopedic museums that hold diverse, cross-cultural collections,
are the proper places for these ancient artifacts. These museums, he argues, give historical treasures the broadest possible
Cuno and I are standing in front of a pedestal that holds an elegant bronze head, part of dazzling new exhibition of African art
from the Kingdom of Benin that opened at the Art Institute this summer. Cuno notes that the piece we are admiring was made in the
12th Century— “two full centuries ahead of the Renaissance.” Many of the objects in the Benin exhibition were seized in a “punitive
expedition” carried out by the British army against Benin’s king in 1897. The plundered items were shipped back to Europe and many
ended up in museums, including the Art Institute. The new exhibition is drawn from the collections of the British Museum, the Musee
du Quai Branly in Paris and the national ethnology museums in Berlin and Vienna.
“By bringing these beautiful objects together under one roof, encyclopedic museums allow us to make the connections between
different cultures, which I think encourages better understanding and tolerance of these cultures,” he says.
And if there are some niggling doubts about whether a particular piece may or may not have been illegally removed from its country
of origin, Cuno’s attitude seems to be, well, so what.
The archeological community takes a somewhat more rigorous view of these niceties. What most concerns archeologists is anything that
strips an artifact of context. Context in the scientific sense refers to the knowledge that can be gleaned from the surroundings in
which an object is found. When looters disturb archeological sites, upsetting the stratigraphic layers of soil, casting aside or
destroying other useful information, and then fudging where they found a particular object, they have effectively stripped the
object of its archeological context. “Context is the most powerful tool we have for understanding ancient civilizations,” says Gil
Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. To illustrate, he tells how scholars in the early years of the 20th Century held widely
divergent views on when humans arrived in the New World.
“The first proof positive came [in 1927] when archeologists digging in New Mexico found an extinct form of bison—and stuck right
into the ribs of this guy was a chipped stone spearhead. That proved humans were here before the Ice Age,” says Stein. The spearhead
embedded in the bison’s body is the context. “Without the context, it’s just another chipped stone spearhead,” he says. Cuno and the
directors of other encyclopedic museums believe that context is overrated.
The Met’s de Montebello is particularly adamant on the point. He recently told a reporter that “98 percent of everything we know
about antiquity we know from objects that were not out of digs.” And referring to one particularly prized item that his museum was
forced to return to Italy, he asked, “How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole . . . it came out of?”
I asked Cuno if he agreed with de Montebello’s 98 percent statement. “I couldn’t put a percentage on it,” he said. But in his book,
Cuno leaves little doubt where he stands:
“Archeological reports can never take the place of gallery presentations of antiquities. Only the object—the actual antiquity, the
thing itself, there on view, ineluctably ancient, with the aura and fracture of age—has the allure to attract the people’s
This, of course, is not Mac Gibson’s view. He says that understanding the culture behind the object and the mind that created it are
what matter most. Objects without context, no matter how tastefully displayed in the galleries of great museums, are little more
than knickknacks. “Beautiful and intriguing,” he says, “but still just knickknacks.”
Last December, U.S. customs agents at O’Hare International Airport intercepted a package that was being shipped from an obscure
auction house in Cleveland to an address in Australia.
Six items were listed on the invoice, but one in particular caught the attention of investigators: a “Babylonian Clay Foundation
Cone, circa 2100 B.C.” The cone was about 4 1/2 inches long and covered with cuneiform inscriptions (see cover photo). Such cones
were typically placed in the foundation or interior walls of buildings in ancient Sumer as dedications to the gods.
Customs officials called in Clemens Reichel, an archeologist at the University of Chicago, to examinethe piece. He quickly
determined that it was authentic, in good condition, and recently excavated from the ancient city of Girsu, now Telloh, in the
southern Iraq province of Dhi Qar. Reichel also translated the inscription, which turned out to be homage from the local governor to
the deities Ningirsu and Enlil.
The chain of transactions that brought the foundation cone from Dhi Qar province to O’Hare is a long one, but from his desktop
computer at the Oriental Institute, Gibson can use Google Earth to zoom in on ground zero of the illegal antiquities trade. If you
know where to look, the evidence of looting is easy to spot.
In the satellite images summoned up by Gibson, dozens of the world’s most important archeological sites are pock-marked with
hundreds of tiny holes, as though they have been infested with an army of burrowing insects; at ground level, the holes are craters,
about the size of a backyard swimming pool, dug by locals scavenging for anything that they might be able to sell.
The most common finds are clay cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals. A cylinder seal—a small stone object engraved with a picture
story—might earn the local finder a few dollars, but the price increases spectacularly as it moves up the chain. In the souks of
Baghdad or Damascus it might get $100; by the time an artifact reaches a gallery in London or New York, it can sometimes fetch five
figures, says Gibson.
The most serious charge leveled by the archeologists is that the trade in looted antiquities is contributing to American casualties
“People think it’s all taking place in the rarefied atmosphere of Christie’s or Sotheby’s, but the money made along the way—dirty
money—is funding the insurgents, funding the IEDs (improvised exploding devices) that are killing American soldiers,” says Stein,
Gibson’s colleague at the Oriental Institute.
This charge is backed up by Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, who conducted the U.S. military’s 2003 investigation into the
looting of the Iraqi National Museum. According to Bogdanos, insurgent groups have inserted themselves into the smuggling chain,
levying a tax on the antiquities as they are smuggled across Iraq’s borders—much the way the Taliban taxes the opium trade in
“You don’t have opium in Iraq but you do have unlimited supplies of antiquities,” says Bogdanos, an assistant Manhattan district
attorney in civilian life. “What we saw in the beginning was Al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents using antiquities as a target of
opportunity. Now it’s the Shiite militias. It’s not their main source of funding—kidnapping and extortion are still the main
sources—but antiquities are on the list.”
Cuno, in his book, dismisses Bogdanos as a “self-styled antiquities policeman” and notes that in 2006 the Iraqi government shifted
control of the county’s antiquities from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Tourism, which happens to be headed by the
militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr’s followers have posted notices at several archeological sites claiming, in their
leader’s name, that it is permissible to remove and sell items from the sites so long as a cut of the money is donated to mosque
construction or to the insurgency. Why, Cuno asks, are archeologists so eager to return Iraq’s antiquities to local control?
Gibson says that’s the wrong question. He lays the blame not on the looters or al-Sadr or the insurgents who take their cut, but on
the museums for heating up the illicit market by buying suspect antiquities or encouraging collectors to buy on their behalf.
“The dealer will come to a museum with this Mesopotamian stuff for sale, and the museum director will say, ‘Well, we can’t buy it,
but why don’t you take it to Mister X, the famous collector,’ ” says Gibson.
The museum is hoping that Mister X will buy the antiquities and then lend them back to the museum. The collector is usually happy
with this arrangement. By having his purchases on display in a prestigious museum, he is suddenly the owner of “museum quality”
objects; this automatically enhances the value of his investment while burnishing his reputation as an arts patron. “It makes the
whole transaction seem legitimate,” says Gibson.
Cuno angrily rejects the accusation: “No reputable museum would ever do that. It’s a cynical fantasy.”
The Art Institute of Chicago does not have a Mesopotamian collection, so its hands are clean in that particular department, but
Roger Atwood, a Washington-based journalist and author of a recent book about looted antiquities, says there are plenty of prominent
museums whose collections do raise questions.
As recently as 2006, Atwood was conducting public tours of the Met and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, pointing out the likely
illicit origin of many items in their display galleries. These included not just the freshly looted plunder from Iraq, but also
objects from Italy and pre-Columbian antiquities from the Americas. Even today, the Met has on display items from Iraq that many
experts, including Bogdanos and Atwood, consider suspect.
“Cuno pretends not to see it,” Atwood says of the link between the wealthy collectors who drive the market for antiquities and the
looting of archeological sites. “But it’s right there.”
Atwood and other experts say that when museums agree to accept items loaned or donated by collectors—often important patrons of the
museum—it is no accident; it is the museum industry’s basic business model.
“Collectors will buy an object on the open market, keep it for a while, and then loan it to a museum or donate it for a tax
write-off,” says Atwood. “This is the system by which museums have built up great collections. It’s basically a good system. Museums
can’t always afford a Picasso on their own.” But the downside, he says, is a system often abused by collectors and museums to
“finance retroactively, through the taxpayers, the destruction of ancient sites.”
Few would quibble with the notion that buying looted antiquities is not good, but Cuno’s book challenges this thinking: “If
undocumented antiquities are the result of looted (and thus destroyed) archeological sites, that there is still a market for them
anywhere is a problem. Keeping them from U.S. art museums is not a solution, only a diversion.”
Cuno argues that looting occurs because looters are poor, and the trend toward increasingly stringent cultural property laws does
nothing to address the root problem—poverty. These laws, and particularly the 1970 UNESCO convention, should be scrapped, he says.
Even in the museum community, this is considered a slightly extreme view, and Erin Hogan, a spokeswoman for Chicago’s Art Institute,
says that views expressed in Cuno’s book are his own and do not reflect the Art Institute’s policy. In light of the high-profile
cases that forced the Met, the Getty and Boston Museum of Fine Arts to return stolen objects, most museum boards in the U.S. have
adopted voluntary guidelines restricting the acquisition of any ancient object without documentation that it was out of its country
of origin before 1970, or that it was legally exported from that country after 1970—the year of the UNESCO convention.
There also is encouraging evidence that the cultural property laws—the laws Cuno derides as “nationalist retentionist”—are actually
working. Italian authorities recently reported a significant decline in the looting of archeological sites since it began pursuing
museums and dealers in U.S. courts.
“[Cuno] portrays nation-states as these terrible things, but like it or not, we live in a world where you have to deal with
nation-states,” says Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University and a leading authority on cultural property.
Gerstenblith says that given the realities on the ground, sovereign nations are the only entities capable of policing the
archeological patrimony on their territory. Even if today’s Iraqis and Egyptians do not share the DNA of the ancient civilizations
that once flourished on their territories, she says, “we want these nations to feel vested in the past; we want them to take care of
Of course, some sovereign states have failed egregiously in this regard—the Taliban’s malevolent destruction of the Great Buddhas of
Bamyan comes to mind—but most take their responsibilities seriously. Iraq, in particular, always had a good record of protecting its
antiquities, dating back to the days when Gertrude Bell, the formidable British Arabist who literally drew Iraq’s borders in the
early 20th Century, wrote the law creating Iraq’s Department of Antiquities and placed herself in charge. Even when the Baath Party
came to power in 1968, the department continued to be well-funded and Iraq’s archeological sites well-protected. Saddam grasped the
political value of archeology and tried to use the mythology of Iraq’s ancient past to gloss over differences among his nation’s
rival Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
Not surprisingly, the archeological community believes tougher enforcement of existing laws is the solution. They argue that
criminal penalties, rather than just the forfeiture of looted items, would go a long way toward cooling the market for looted
antiquities. As a practical matter, such cases are difficult to prosecute. When dealers or collectors or museums are caught with
looted goods, they usually plead ignorance; the burden of proof falls on the prosecution to demonstrate the accused knew that an
item was obtained illegally.
But the cozy world of dealers and collectors received a jolt in 2002 when Frederick Schultz, a prominent Manhattan gallery owner and
former president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art, was given a 33-month prison sentence
and fined $500,000 for conspiring to sell antiquities stolen from Egypt. It marked one of the few times anyone has gone to prison
for trafficking in stolen antiquities.
Despite the flood of looted material from Iraq, the only successful prosecution involving Iraqi antiquities has been the peculiar
case of Joseph Braude, a 29-year-old author and frequent contributor to the New Republic magazine. He was convicted in 2004 of lying
to U.S. customs officials about three cylinder seals he bought for $400 on a Baghdad street. The seals had been looted from the
National Museum. During his trial, Braude, an expert on Iraq, admitted he suspected the seals were stolen and said he planned to
turn them over to U.S. authorities. He eventually entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to six months of house arrest.
It is worth noting that in Saddam’s Iraq, the penalty for this crime would have been death.