U.S. art historians, archeologists, and cultural institutions are joining global efforts to help Iraq recover and restore the treasures of ancient civilization that were plundered by thieves, antiquity traffickers and mobs in the aftermath of the recent conflict in Iraq. Evidence indicates much of the initial looting of Iraqi antiquities was part of organized criminal efforts to steal and sell the priceless artifacts on the international art market.
Bonnie Burnham, the head of the New York-based World Monument Fund, said many of Iraq's cultural sites were being looted even before the recent conflict in Iraq.
"We knew this was happening because of small pieces from the sites that were coming out and turning up on the international market," she said.
As a result of an amnesty, many minor items have already been returned. But experts say it may be years before the most valuable antiquities surface.
"The way the antiquities market works, it will not all move this week," said Ellen Herscher, chairwoman of the cultural property committee of the Archeological Institute of America. "The professional smugglers, the traffickers, they are not going to bring it in this week. They are going to sit on it. In the art trade they can sit on it for decades, until all the fuss dies down and until it is not so hot. Eventually, perhaps decades, it will emerge."
International laws make trafficking in antiquities illegal, and global art-theft registers help customs officials and international specialists identify trafficked art and artifacts. But experts like Ellen Herscher say there is a limit to what can be recovered as long as a market of high-end collectors is available.
"Certainly, as long as there is a demand, somehow people will get around the laws and try to supply that demand," she said. "So a lot of the effort that we have made to discourage is on the demand side. Just trying to stop it at the source is not adequate. Unless the people who buy these things are discouraged, someone is always going to find away to get around the laws."
Along with UNESCO, U.S. museums and universities are pooling their resources to create an authoritative inventory of Iraqi antiquities and art. But some experts fear that the heightened sense of concern over the thefts is diverting attention from sites that are now in need of safeguarding. Especially important, says Bonnie Burnham of the World Monument Fund, are two significant Assyrian sites known for their carvings, Nineveh and Nimrud, and neglected sites in the northern Kurdish-dominated area of Iraq.
Ms. Burnham said attention also needs to be given to the quality of restoration at Iraqi cultural sites. Too often, she says, such efforts do more harm than good.
"It could be the result of repairing buildings that have experienced some damage, but using the wrong kind of approaches and the wrong materials," she said. "Very important buildings, ancient houses, could be lost completely in the reconstruction process because something nearby could be damaged and they are just bulldozed. That kind of thing happens everywhere."
Ms. Burnham says American cultural institutions can play a major role in lending their expertise and financial support to reconstruction efforts. By helping Iraq retrieve its antiquities and rebuild its cultural sites, Bonnie Burnham believes Americans can also contribute to the Iraq's economic recovery.
"They are the other great resource the county has apart from its oil. We find it very ironic, we in the cultural world, that such pains were taken to protect the oil fields and nothing was done to protect the cultural heritage," she commented. "Now as the country is rebuilt those will be the great assets. Many, many people will want to go to Iraq who have never been there. The country has not been accessible, certainly not to Americans, in my adult lifetime."
Ms. Burnham says U.S. museums are offering to lend Iraqi museums objects from their own Middle Eastern collections until the institutions are able to replenish their own holdings. Such gestures, she says, can serve as powerful diplomatic tools to create good will between Americans and Iraqis.