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Where Has The Treasure Gone? - 2003-04-23

As the situation in Iraq becomes more stable, the global arts community is asking a big question-- what happened to the Iraqi art treasures looted in the waning days of the war? VOA-TV’s Jim Harriott has more

Over the years countless thousands of schoolchildren have been taught that Mesopotamia, the land that lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was the "cradle of civilization". For many years, examples of its culture were on view in the museums of what is now Iraq. But – those antiquities were vulnerable. In a January documentary aired by the British broadcasting company, the BBC, museum workers told art historian Dan Cruikshank -- with the threat of war -- the best pieces had been hidden away. But he fears they were then smuggled out of Iraq.

"It's a major underworld, the selling of art on the black-market. It's been refined over decades. There is so much money at stake and, of course, these people have mechanisms for doing it."

Only the British museum in London has Mesopotamian art that compares to Baghdad’s now-plundered collection. But Dr. Irving Finkel and his people in the British museum's Near East department have come up with a rescue plan.

"Six people will go to Baghdad, three curators and three conservators, and they will work in the museum under Iraqi supervision to rescue what can be rescued and restore it.”

However, a man who keeps track of such things, the head of London’s art loss register, Julian Radcliffe, says major stolen antiquities from Iraq are already circulating on the black markets of Europe and North America.

"It will take many years before those items surface and some will never surface at all. The will go into a collector's house and not come out for another hundred years."

He thinks they'll be lucky to recover more than 10 percent of what's out there. And it will take years to restore what was smashed and left behind in the Baghdad national museum. One glimmer of light in all this: there are still thousands of archeological sites in Iraq, which never have been excavated. Treasures underground waiting to be to be discovered. The people who gave the world writing, mathematics and the wheel have much more to show.