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US Investigators Help Track Stolen Iraqi Antiquities - 2003-05-17

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U.S. investigators say the looting of Iraqi antiquities after the recent war was not nearly as extensive as originally feared. Nevertheless, they note that tracking items that are still missing will probably take a long time.

Fourteen U.S. military and civilian experts are assessing the theft of ancient treasures from Iraq's National Museum, which was looted after allied forces occupied Baghdad last month.

The museum housed treasures several thousand years old excavated from the land where civilization began.

The U.S. Marine colonel leading the probe, Matthew Bogdanos, says museum officials' original estimate of 170,000 missing artifacts was a gross exaggeration. But he adds it is difficult to know with certainty what looters took because the museum had no master list of its collection.

"It's simply at this point impossible to give you numbers because there are tens of thousands of pieces that don't just have to be counted, but they have to be compared against inventory lists that in some cases don't exist or can't be found," he explained.

In a briefing from Baghdad for Washington reporters, Colonel Bogdanos said his investigators have recovered nearly 1,000 looted items, many through a general amnesty program. These include one of the oldest known bronze relief bowls, one of the earliest recorded Sumerian statues, and an 8,000-year-old pottery jar.

"Every time we recover a single piece, it's an absolute joy to those of us on the investigation," he stressed.

In addition, Colonel Bogdanos said museum officials hid nearly 50,000 treasures elsewhere in Baghdad before the war began. These include ancient books and Islamic manuscripts and scrolls being protected by Iraqi citizens at a bomb shelter and gold and silver jewelry hidden in an underground Iraqi Central Bank vault. Colonel Bogdanos said the vault will be opened in the future by what he called an appropriate authority.

"This team has no authority to open underground vaults of the Central Bank of Iraq," he pointed out. "When the bank vaults are opened, there will be an investigator physically present to determine whether or not the items that are claimed to be in the underground vault are in fact in the underground vault."

The U.S. military official says the evidence shows that some of the looting was carried out by people who knew what they wanted from the public galleries. Others apparently knew the museum's private layout and sacked items locked in basement storage rooms. A third group was made up of random looters. Whether there was collusion among these groups is unknown.

The U.S. investigators say they will present any evidence of theft to a future Iraqi government for possible prosecution. Colonel Bogdanos said his group is working with international police authorities, U.S. government agencies, and customs officials of neighboring Jordan to help intercept antiquities that might have left Iraq.

"The majority of the work remaining, that of tracking down each of these missing pieces, will likely take years," he said.

But some scholars believe there is little hope of recovering antiquities taken from Iraq. Boston University archeologist Paul Zimansky says U.S. courts, for example, have been reluctant to enforce other countries' laws that bar export of cultural property.

"The art dealers do better than archaeologists when it comes to this sort of thing," he said. "Museum numbers will be effaced. There will be this pretense that this stuff left the country long ago and had nothing to do with the thing that looks exactly like it that was in the museum. So it's going to be tough to win those cases."

Mr. Zimansky cited a case where an individual was caught smuggling a Peruvian antiquity into the United State. He said a court permitted him to keep it because Peruvian officials could not present an inventory listing the item.

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