The looting of Iraq’s National Museum was one of the greatest scandals of the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Archaeologists had repeatedly warned Washington that, without protection, the Baghdad museum – which held the priceless cultural heritage of not just of Mesopotamia, but of mankind – would be ransacked by looters.
And it was.
But U.S. troops didn’t react when Iraqis ravenously tore through the galleries for two straight days, carrying off 15,000 precious artifacts from the first 7,000 years of civilization.
The oldest known sculpture of a natural human face, the Warka Head, known as the Sumerian Mona Lisa, gone. A 4,500-year-old bronze figure of an Akkadian king, gone. At least 5,000 Sumerian cylinder seals engraved with the earliest form of writing, all gone.
“Stuff happens” was the notorious reaction of then-U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But the world’s reaction was swift and furious.
The International Council on Monuments accused the U.S. of committing a “crime against humanity.” Interpol immediately set up a task force to track the stolen property. Scholars flinched.
Even before the dust settled, it became clear that the most valuable artifacts, hidden a month before in basement lockers, had been targeted by organized thieves.
“I knew it was organized crime when I saw the storerooms had been unlocked and certain items removed,” said then-museum director Donny George. “They knew where these items had been put.”
And they knew where they were going – into the rapacious hands of unprincipled dealers and private collectors who didn’t care how they’d been obtained. “People with no scruples but a lust for possession,” says Edward Keall, a Royal Ontario Museum senior curator who is periodically called by Canada Customs to check incoming Mid-Eastern antiquities.
Five to seven years is the average lag time for famous stolen art or antiquities to surface and it’s now six years since the museum’s plunder. But despite an ongoing international crackdown on smuggled Iraqi artifacts, fewer than half the stolen treasures have been recovered.
Many were returned in the first few months, after the U.S. snapped into action and appointed Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a Manhattan district attorney in private life, to head a 13-member investigation team.
Bogdanos announced an amnesty, and by the fall of 2003 more than 3,000 items were returned voluntarily by locals, including the famed alabaster Warka Vase, albeit brought back in 14 pieces in a plastic bag. Another 900 objects were seized in raids and at checkpoints, among them 10 of the 42 most valuable artifacts. They included the Warka Head, found buried at a farmhouse, and the Bassetki statue, a 4,300-year-old copper lower torso and legs of a seated male figure. It had been hidden in a cesspool, submerged.
In the first few years, most of the still-missing objects were too hot to handle internationally. But in time, they began to emerge:
- In 2006, the headless stone statue of the Sumerian king, Entemena, was recovered after it was offered for sale to a dealer in New York. A year later, a 4,000-year-old inscribed clay tablet was pulled from eBay’s Swiss website minutes before the close of bidding.
- In 2008, 11 cylinder seals, made of agate and alabaster, were found by customs agents in Philadelphia.
- Also last year, more than 700 items – ranging from gold necklaces and daggers to clay statues and pots and collectively worth millions of dollars – were returned by Syria after being seized from traffickers. It was the first mass return of artifacts. But not the last.
- Four months ago, Iraqi government officials handed over 531 items, including ancient coins and 165 statues and cylinder seals, which had been in the possession of two unidentified members of parliament.
- Last month, 69 artifacts were surrendered by Dutch art dealers after Interpol disclosed their illegal origin; among them, a terracotta relief of a bearded man praying, believed to be more than 2,000 years old.
Symbolically handed back, that is. The Dutch will display them until they can be safely returned to Iraq’s museum. Further looting remains a threat, which is why the museum opened on Feb. 23 this year, only to be shut down again within hours.
As horrific, however, as the original ransacking was, “it was only the initial catastrophe,” says Clemens Reichel, a Mesopotamian archaeologist at the University of Toronto and a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum. In the years since, industrial-scale pillaging of thousands of southern Iraq’s unprotected excavation sites has resulted in the disappearance of another 500,000 artifacts, he says.
“Most of the big sites have been hacked to pieces. You can see the destruction from satellite pictures taken before and since the war.”
The looters not only steal, but destroy items of inestimable value, he says: “In retrieving one object, they’ll throw away 50,000 smaller pieces that would be greatly important to archaeologists.”
Before his recent move to Toronto, Reichel was at the University of Chicago’s eminent Oriental Institute. Within a day of the museum rampage, he immediately became head of a unique project – to create a computerized database of the precise objects taken and track their status in the coming years.
No mean feat. Not all of the museum’s collection had been catalogued or photographed. Though the official holdings count was 150,000, the full tally was closer to 500,000. A complete list of the losses could only be drawn up after an inventory of all the remaining items were compiled. With the help of other museums and scholars who’d photographed in the museum, Reichel painstakingly put together images of as many objects as possible.
The terrible irony is, he says, that for all his other sins, Saddam Hussein enforced a strict anti-smuggling policy. Looters were executed. “There was no market for Iraqi antiquities until the first Gulf War in 1990.”
Now the market is flooded with them and there are collectors known in the U.S. and Europe, especially Germany, Switzerland and Norway. “That’s the ‘visible’ market, where things are tightening up. But there’s also the ‘invisible’ market, Japan and the wealthy Gulf states. Who knows what’s there.”
Reichel often sees objects on auction house websites that are suspicious. But suspicion, he sighs, isn’t proof.