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Picking up the pieces in Iraq 

U.S. is aiding in search for museum's plunder 


The looting of Baghdad's National Museum robbed the world of treasures dating from the dawn of civilization.

The missing antiquities - works of art resplendent with gold and jewels, clay tablets on which the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh was first recorded, vast amounts of pottery, statuary, armaments, coins - are often described as priceless.

But they are not. On the black market, everything has a price.

As experts scramble to determine just what is missing, the world's top cops and scholar-sleuths are scouring the globe for a rogue's gallery of thieves and smugglers who apparently knew exactly what they wanted and just how to get it.

Fueling speculation that the ransacking of the museum was used to cover up evidence of an inside job, valuable items were taken while lesser items were ignored, and documents that would allow objects to be tracked were destroyed.

It is a saga of international intrigue worthy of Indiana Jones, and the hunt is on for the traders of the lost art.

The FBI has 25 agents in the region, and Customs is helping the military with its looting probe, which is being led by Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanus.

In civilian life, Bogdanus is a Manhattan assistant district attorney noted for the prosecution of the gun-possession case against rap impresario Sean (Puffy) Combs.

Interpol plans a conference May 5-6 at its headquarters in Lyon, France, to coordinate international law enforcement efforts. But the thieves may prove elusive.

"Even in a war zone, even with the country practically sealed off, these things can move with incredible speed," said Karl-Heinz Kind, top art-theft expert at Interpol, the international agency that coordinates the police activities of more than 100 member nations.

Time's of the essence

With many museum records and catalogues destroyed by the looters, no one knows for sure just what is missing. And every minute that passes without an inventory works in favor of the thieves.

But more than two weeks after the museum was raided, officials "still can't find anyone with the combination to the vaults" where some treasures are believed to be stored, said Harold Holzer, spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. Experts from the Metropolitan and the British Museum are expected to spearhead the inventory effort.

At first blush, the Baghdad museum - a major repository of artifacts from the ancient civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley - appeared to have been ransacked by an angry mob.

Abdul Rakhman, the museum's live-in guard, described a screaming swarm of humanity with axes and iron bars, smashing glass cases, breaking statues and ripping works of art from walls.

"They said there was no government and that everything belonged to them," Rakhman told reporters at the scene. "They stuffed the pieces into bags."

But that was the second wave of thieves.

Days before, the museum had been methodically culled by well-organized professionals, apparently under the direction of antiquities experts.

There is ample evidence that it was an inside job.

Display cabinets were found looted but locked. Heavy metal storage room doors had not been broken down. Items of lesser value were left behind, and some catalogues of the museum's collection were destroyed - making it more difficult for investigators to determine what was taken.

"They were looking for very specific artifacts," said Prof. Gil Stein of the University of Chicago, which has established a Web page featuring the lost treasures of Iraq. "They knew what they were looking for."

Some of the missing items may have been placed in hiding for safekeeping. But law enforcement experts suspect many of the most highly prized treasures were taken by members of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's inner circle, possibly for use as bargaining chips if they are captured.

Baath Party stash

Even before the fall of Baghdad, Saddam loyalists were suspected of pilfering national treasures.

Iraqi Culture Ministry archeologists told U.S. officials that Baath Party bigwigs routinely seized gold and jewels from the museum. And in 1995, after Saddam's one-time mistress Mansiyah Khazer was put in charge of ruins at Hatra, UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, issued a global alert that artifacts were being looted from the ancient walled city.

"One of the art works we recovered was a painting that had markings indicating it was property of the museum," said Customs spokesman Kevin Bell. "It was hanging in a residence, indicating that one of Saddam's henchmen had put it in his home." Baghdad's National Museum was robbed of as many as 170,000 artifacts, many extraordinarily fragile, and three rare-book libraries in Baghdad were burned and looted. They were not the only Iraqi treasure troves plundered.

Hundreds of unique artifacts - including clay cuneiform tablets from the ancient Assyrian cities of Nineveh and Nimrud - were spirited out of the Mosul Museum. Museums in Basra and Kirkuk also were sacked.

Antiquities experts fear all this plunder - everything from huge sculptures to inch-long cylinder seals - will be trucked across the desert or hauled by mule across the mountains into Jordan, Syria and Turkey.

In a few years, experts predict, the unrecovered items will surface in the inventory of unscrupulous dealers - minus museum markings and with forged ownership histories - or in one of the private museums said to be maintained by wildly wealthy collectors in Japan, the Mideast and parts of Europe.

'Too hot to handle'

"Some of this material is pictured in the first pages of every basic history of art textbook," said Ellen Herscher, chairwoman of the cultural properties committee of the Archeology Institute of America. "It's too hot to handle, even on the black market."

But, she added, "There is little doubt that there are 'Dr. No'-type collectors with secret rooms where they have hidden away very prominent pieces obtained under shady circumstances. It is conceivable that some of the more well-known artifacts could wind up in such collections."

"Borders are fluid and objects that are less identifiable or small are easily sent across them," said Sharon Flescher, chief of the Manhattan-based International Foundation for Art Research. "There always will be nefarious intermediaries who can and will acquire them."

Manhattan collector Jonathan Rosen, whose donations are prized by the Metropolitan and other museums, adds another wrinkle.

With ancient artifacts, "you only know what the seller tells you" about the source, Rosen said. "If there is a problem with Iraq, they could tell you it is from Syria or Jordan. There's no real way to know. You don't think of countries, you think of civilizations - and they could span the borders of several modern countries."

So far, some relatively minor antiquities have resurfaced thanks to urgings of Muslim clerics broadcast over the loudspeakers of Baghdad's mosques.

But prospects for the recovery of the lost treasures of Iraq are not good. Only 2% of stolen antiquities are ever found. The director of another pillaged museum in another war-torn country offered this insight. "Looting can occur in a moment," said Omara Khan Masoodi, director of the pillaged National Museum in Kabul, Afghanistan. "But getting those objects back ... that will take a long time."

Booty call to looters

Archeologists, curators, cataloguers and preservationists from the world's great universities and museums are scrambling to help authorities determine what was taken from the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad.

Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello has called for a global moratorium on the purchase of Iraqi antiquities and urged the White House to offer amnesty and compensation to looters who return artifacts.

"To cut the market without offering rewards might encourage thieves to destroy objects to avoid prosecution or melt them down," he said.

The pilfered trove dates from as long ago as 9,000 B.C. It includes some of the earliest tools made by humans; tablets with the Epic of Gilgamesh, a pre-Noah story of the Flood; the famous 5,000-year-old Uruk Vase; gold from the Royal Cemetery at Ur; statuary from Nimrud and Nineveh, and countless ancient armaments, clay tablets and coins.

Originally published on April 29, 2003


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