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Iraqi Looting was Disaster for National Heritage, say Western Museum Experts - 2003-05-06

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Curators from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and London's British Museum say the war-time looting from the Baghdad Museum was a disaster for Iraq's cultural heritage.

Curator of Ancient Near East art from the British Museum, John Curtis recently returned from a trip to Iraq where he assessed the damage at the Baghdad Museum. He says 30 to 40 objects that were on view in Baghdad are known to have been stolen. Those objects include a precious bronze statue vase from about 23-50 B.C., and a heavy ancient bronze casting that must have taken several people to move.

However, Mr. Curtis says an unknown but probably large number of works were stolen from the museum's storage area, which held as many as 200,000 objects. Crucial documents, photo negatives and computer disks in 130 of the Baghdad Museum's administrative rooms were also destroyed. "The scale of the disaster? Well yes, it is a huge disaster," says Mr. Curtis. "We hope that by the end of the day that many of the significant pieces that were on exhibition before still are safe and can be put back on exhibition but it is nevertheless a terrible tragedy that probably so many objects from the storage areas will have been taken and the loss of the documentation also is very, very sad."

Mr. Curtis says it is unclear how long it would take to determine how many objects were looted from the storage area. An audit could take several months, if not a year. That task, he says, is made more difficult by the loss of the museum's paperwork.

British Museum Director Neil MacGregor says that until a new government is formed, Iraqi curators will be reluctant to disclose where they moved particular objects prior to the war on the orders of Saddam Hussein's government. Museum officials spoke at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where an exhibition of Mesopotamian urban treasures from third century B.C. Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Pakistan are on view.

Metropolitan Museum Curator Philipe de Montebello calls on the international community to take steps to prevent further looting and the destruction of the stolen objects. "Equally important if you think of the objects, one must think of their preservation and this is why I call for immunity from prosecution and for compensation because the moment you eliminate the black market you condemn the objects that instantly become evidence against the looter therefore it is either melted for the value of the gold, $330 an ounce, or it is smashed," says Mr. de Montebello.

U.S. tanks are now stationed in front of the Baghdad Museum to prevent further looting. And international experts and law enforcement officials are holding a two-day conference in Lyon, France, to coordinate efforts to track down art stolen during the Iraq war. That meetings follows last week's gathering in London by the world's top curators and U.N. officials.

The United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, is posting a list of objects known to be looted from Iraq on its website and is pushing for a Security Council resolution to broaden international safeguards banning trade in cultural artifacts.

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