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Looted Iraqi Museum in Baghdad reopens 12 years on

BBC News – Middle East
28 February 2015 Last updated at 08:24 ET

Iraq’s national museum has officially reopened in Baghdad, 12 years after it was closed in the aftermath of the US-led invasion. Many of the antiquities looted during the war have now been recovered and restored.

The museum’s opening was brought forward in response to an Islamic State (IS) video showing statues being destroyed in Mosul.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to punish those responsible.

“Those barbaric, criminal terrorists are trying to destroy the heritage of mankind and Iraq’s civilization,” Mr Abadi said while attending the museum’s opening.

“We will chase them in order to make them pay for every drop of blood shed in Iraq and for the destruction of Iraq’s civilization.”

A man looks at ancient Assyrian human-headed winged bull statues at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad
Some of the museum’s items were impossible to loot during the Iraq war
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (C) attends the reopening ceremony of Iraq's national museum on February 28, 2015
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi officially opened the museum
A statue dating back to the 8th Century BC is displayed at the entrance of Iraq's national museum during its official reopening on February 28, 2015
This piece dates to the 8th Century BC – others in the museum are far older
An ancient artefact on display at the Iraqi Museum
The Mesopotamians developed writing long before other civilizations
Artefacts coming from the Mosul area on display at the Iraqi Museum
About 15,000 pieces were looted during the Iraq war, with one-third recovered


The world heritage body Unesco has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss how to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage.

The Iraqi Deputy Tourism and Antiquities Minister, Qais Hussein Rashid, told AFP the actions of IS had spurred them into opening.

“The events in Mosul led us to speed up our work and we wanted to open it today as a response to what the gangs of Daesh did,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

The Iraq Museum estimates that some 15,000 items were taken in the chaos that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Almost one-third have been recovered.

The collection covers 7,000 years of history, with Mesopotamia – as Iraq was called for much of human history – considered the cradle of civilization.

Modern reality in Iraq is more violent. The areas in and around Baghdad continue to see daily violence, with at least 25 people killed in two separate attacks north of the capital on Saturday.


War looters threaten Syria’s heritage

Financial Times December 27, 2012

By Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut

In the destructive chaos of the civil war, Syria’s archaeological heritage is disappearing piece by piece across its borders as smuggling of looted antiquities accelerates.

Unesco has raised the alarm at the damage wrought to the world heritage sites, including the ancient Umayyad mosque and historic vaulted souk of Aleppo, much of which were burnt in fierce fighting between armed rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Since the outbreak of the uprising 21 months ago, there have been reports of antiquities being stolen from sites that previously were well guarded. But now, according to a man involved in the trade, it is becoming more systematic.

“It’s very similar to Iraq,” he said. In both countries, he explained, the looting became “more organised” as time went by.

Syria is unusually rich in archaeological sites; it was at the frontier of the Roman and Parthian empires, and contains traces of all the important civilisations that had a presence in the Middle East going back to the earliest settled cultures. It is also unusual in having churches and mosques which have been in continuous use since the early days of Christianity and Islam.

Artefacts are dug up or stolen from the many sites, smuggled across the Lebanese and Turkish borders, authenticated by experts and then sold on to clients from around the world, including the US, according to people involved in the trade.

It is potentially big business. A small statue is worth $30,000, the trader said.

Another man involved in the trafficking interviewed this year said he was offered an object for $300,000.

A video posted on the internet purportedly taken in the ancient city of Palmyra gives an indication of the ravages wrought by the illegal trade. It shows several stone sculptures apparently stolen from the site being loaded on to a pickup truck.

Initially, the looting happened in an ad hoc manner, sometimes with the apparent collusion of security services.

One activist interviewed in the ancient city of Apamea said that excavating and selling antiquities there, mainly mosaics, had become a rare source of income for ordinary people in an economy ravaged by war.

“People don’t have jobs,” said the activist. “Poor farmers, when they find something worth $1,000 or $500, they get very happy. Some discovered precious things and now got very rich; others just found things which might just get food.”

Now however, according to the trader, much like the country itself, the trafficking is increasingly coming under the control of rebels.

“The FSA [Free Syrian Army] are controlling it in a bold and brave way,” he said. “But now they want weapons, not money.”

In a conflict estimated to have killed more than 40,000 people, it is hard to focus on buildings and objects.

Nonetheless, concerned heritage experts have started a Facebook group to monitor the impact of fighting, shelling and looting on Syria’s tapestry of historic sites.

“The destruction of things that have not been studied is like burning pages in the book of history,” said Rodrigo Martin, a member of the group. “Now we’re seeing total war everywhere we have to be really, really concerned.”

Professor Maamoun Abdul Karim, head of the Syrian authority for antiquities and museums, acknowledged the problem but said his agency had increased protection of sites by working with local communities. He pleaded with neighbouring countries to crack down on the illegal trade.

“We want to spread our message to the countries around us: be stronger and more protected against thieves,” he said. “We have to ignore our differences and be more focused on our heritage for the whole area, and for humanity.”

The trader however was unsentimental. “There is no place for feeling in business,” he said.

The 1954 Hague Convention and Preserving Cultural Heritage

Archaeological Institute of America online

Heritage, Conservation & Archaeology

October 19, 2010 – by Corine Wegener


On March 13, 2009, the United States deposited its instrument of ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with UNESCO. This watershed event, which took more than 50 years to achieve, was the result of years of work by a number of individuals and organizations. Now that we have achieved this monumental goal, will the 1954 Hague Convention really help prevent damage to cultural property during future armed conflicts? This will depend to a certain extent on how we in the U.S. cultural heritage professional community help to promote and carry out our own responsibilities toward domestic implementation of this important international treaty. Here we will explore a bit of history, the basic provisions of the Hague Convention, and how we as heritage professionals can support efforts to ensure it is effective.


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The War Over Plunder: Who Owns Art Stolen in War?

From Military History Quarterly, Summer 2010

 The Swedes came at night, rushing through a gap in the walls protecting the Mala Strana neighborhood at the foot of Prague Castle. By the break of day on July 27, 1648, the invaders had captured the entire western side of the city, including the castle, with its famous collections of art, rare books, and astronomical instruments. Over the coming weeks, the Swedes tried several times to cross the Charles Bridge to seize the Old Town on the opposite bank of the Vltava River, but were repelled by a ragtag force of townspeople and Jesuit priests. Despite receiving reinforcements, the Swedes were stuck on their side of the river in November when news of the Peace of Westphalia reached the city. The Thirty Years War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history, had finally come to a close, ending Sweden’s campaign against the Holy Roman Empire. N The Swedish army had been denied control of the commercial side of town but had achieved its main objective: the capture of the renowned trove of art, treasure, and curiosities collected in Prague Castle by the late Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. For decades prior to his death in 1612, Rudolf had directed a small army of agents to scour the known world for unusual objects. There were paintings by Albrecht Dürer and Pieter Brueghel, jewels, precious stones, and ancient coins from Italy, the Balkans, and the Middle East, exquisite clocks from the four corners of Europe, and statues in stone and bronze. There was a horn allegedly taken from a unicorn, the jawbone of one of the Sirens who tempted Ulysses, and even a pair of iron nails supposedly salvaged from Noah’s ark. Rudolf had commissioned a greenhouse in which his staff maintained a collection of exotic plants and a menagerie where they tended unusual beasts, including a live lion. His paintings alone took up seven halls of Prague’s sprawling castle complex.

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Resurrecting the ruins of Aqar Quf

Iraqi district waits on national funds to bolster historic site


By Travis J. Tritten. Stars and Stripes

Mideast edition, Sunday, January 25, 2009ABU GHRAIB


The ziggurat’s clay-brick walls have eroded into steep cliffs over the past 3,500 years, and the shepherds go hand over hand on a well-known path to the peak. There are no guards blocking the climb, no visitors to watch the spectacle.


On the desert below, the shepherds’ flock grazes among the gutted remains of a museum and restaurant.


The Aqar Quf ziggurat is among the 10 oldest structures in Iraq and once drew hundreds of visitors each week from nearby Baghdad. But the ancient site was abandoned and stripped by looters during the war.


As violence subsides, the government in this rural corner of the Abu Ghraib district is struggling to get national funding to reopen the Aqar Quf historic site and bolster the local economy.

“All these people in the villages get an advantage from [the site] because people come and spend money,” said Alaa Mard Asker, the manager of a local government council who is heading the effort.


The Aqar Quf site is built around the craggy ziggurat and includes a 500-year-old temple complex and a looted visitor center. The surrounding area also has an ancient factory used to make the ziggurat’s clay bricks and could contain more buried artifacts, according to Iraqi officials.


The United States agreed to fund removal of debris from the area on the condition the local council would work with the national government to create a renovation plan, according to Company C, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, which oversees the area.


Over the past six months, local officials have drafted plans to rebuild the historic site, but support from the Iraq Ministry of History and Ruins has not materialized.


Many of the country’s rural areas are in desperate need of funding for local infrastructure and reconstruction. The national government, which holds the purse strings in Iraq, has been slow to meet needs outside of Baghdad, leading areas such as Abu Ghraib to feel neglected.

Alaa walked around the abandoned visitor center Monday, pointing to trash-strewn patches of sand that he said could be transformed with ministry funding.

One patch is planned for a fountain and garden, another will be a game field, he said. A new administration building would be built, along with brick walkways to match the style of the ruins.


The ziggurat has been undamaged by the war and stands as it has for millennia. Along with an adjacent 500-year-old temple complex, it must be preserved and will not be touched by new construction, Alaa said.


Legend says a king built the ziggurat around the 15th century B.C. to reach heaven and kill God. The clay bricks and layers of reed mats, culled from a once fertile river valley, have survived the changing environment and the Middle East’s turbulent history.


But little is left of the modern administration building, museum, event stage and restaurant that once served the picnickers and students who visited the site before the Iraq war.


Inside the museum, the rooms are dark and the floors are covered with shards of glass. Artifacts such as etched stones and pottery are mixed with piles of debris. Some museum pieces were moved to safety in Baghdad and the rest were lost to looting, Alaa said.


“When Saddam fell, they stole most of the artifacts,” he said.


Ministry of History and Ruins officials recently visited the damage and requested a site map.

It was unclear if the request signaled progress toward funding. But Aqar Quf might have new hope in the coming weeks.


Elections this month could pick politicians who are more concerned with issues outside the capital and help turn on the funding spigot for Aqar Quf and the Abu Ghraib area, Alaa said.

“We hope they will pay attention to us and give us some money,” he said.


The United States has already provided more than $8 million for public reconstruction work in the Abu Ghraib district, a stretch of land between Baghdad and Fallujah. Similar coalition funding has been pumped into work across the country.


As the war winds down, the U.S. is attempting to shift responsibility for reconstruction projects such as Aqar Quf, which was rated as a key project in the area by Company C when it deployed there in May.


“We think it should be an Iraqi process,” said Capt. David Uthlaut, the company commander.

The coalition could provide an initial boost of construction funding for the site but all planning and funding should be coordinated between the local and national government, Uthlaut said.


“The intent is not only to install a tourist site but to provide jobs for this area,” he said. “They’ve been grinding through the process since August.”

Loot! Chicago at center of battle between archeologists, collectors

A 4,000-year-old artifact turns up at O’Hare. Stolen property or museum piece?

By Tom Hundley

Chicago Tribune

November 9, 2008

McGuire Gibson, a man who may know as much about ancient Mesopotamian archeology as anyone on the planet, was horrified by the events in Baghdad and by Rumsfeld’s cavalier attitude, but he wasn’t particularly surprised. In the months leading up to the U.S. invasion, the distinguished University of Chicago scholar had repeatedly warned the Pentagon and State Department about the likelihood of looting. n The warnings fell on deaf ears. n I had been hearing about the legendary Mac Gibson for years, but I did not meet him until a month after the ransacking of the museum, when I was in Baghdad as a Tribune correspondent and he traveled to that benighted city to inspect the damage for himself.

Glass from shattered display cases crackled underfoot as we walked the museum’s devastated galleries, Gibson with the aid of a cane, which he occasionally used as a pointer.

“This chunk of rock is extremely important. We were very worried about it,” he said, indicating a 5,000- year-old carved frieze that the looters had ignored. “It shows a guy killing a lion with a bow and arrow. It’s important because it is one of the earliest examples of someone acting like a king. All through history, this is what kings do. They hunt,” he explained.

Gibson, who is 69 and can sometimes come across as ornery, has been sifting through the ruins of Iraq’s ancient civilizations for more than four decades. He is president of the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq. His first dig in the country was in 1964, and he has been back pretty much every year since then.

After the walk-through, Gibson pronounced his verdict: “We dodged a bullet.”

This didn’t appear to jibe with the mess that I had just seen, but at the time Gibson knew much more about the precarious state of Iraq’s archeological heritage than the media or the general public. He knew, for instance, that some of the museum’s most precious treasures had been stored for more than a decade in the basement vaults of Iraq’s Central Bank. He also knew that something far worse was afoot, that the sack of the National Museum was only a symptom of a much more serious crisis that had been building for more than a decade, ever since Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the first Persian Gulf War, a crisis that would soon reach a new crescendo.

At the close of the war in 1991, as Saddam fought off insurrections from the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, the U.S. government imposed a no-fly zone over large swaths of Iraq. This, along with strict UN trade sanctions, created a kind of perfect storm. With the weakened Baghdad regime unable to control large parts of the country, impoverished Iraqi villagers—often with the blessing of village elders—turned to the only source of income available to them: scavenging the hundreds of archeological sites that dot the landscape between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In some areas, the trade in looted antiquities accounted for almost 85 percent of local economic activity. Meanwhile, a weak U.S. economy at the end of George H. W. Bush’s presidency was encouraging the truly rich to look for alternatives to stocks and bonds. Art and antiquities fit the bill. As supply obligingly met demand, the market for Mesopotamian antiquities blossomed. Within months of the war’s end, a treasure trove of Mesopotamian antiquities began to show up in the gilded display rooms of auction houses in London and New York, no questions asked.

“In the 1990s, you couldn’t buy a bag of dates from Iraq, but you could buy almost any antiquity you wanted,” Gibson said during a recent interview at his musty, book-cluttered office on the second floor of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

In the years since the first Gulf War, the ransacking of Iraq’s archeological heritage has proceeded at a breathtaking pace. If it has slowed slightly in the last year or so, it is only because the market has become saturated. Archeologists have decried this as a terrible loss to all humanity. Museum directors, whose institutions are the repositories for the most important archeological finds, agree. But a war of words has broken out between the two camps. Archeologists argue that major museums and the wealthy private collectors who often sit on their boards have hastened the destruction of archeological sites by their willingness to pay high prices for objects that have almost certainly been looted. The museum directors and private collectors contend that by rescuing these artifacts from the vicissitudes of the black market they are giving safe shelter to the historical patrimony of all mankind.

The high-end trade in illegal antiquities is centered in New York and London, but Chicago has emerged at the vortex of the debate. Earlier this year, the Oriental Institute mounted an important exhibition called “Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past.” It will run through the end of the year. On the other side of the argument, James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has recently published a book called “Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage.” In it, Cuno reflects on the meaning and origins of culture, and attempts by government to manipulate culture for political advantage. He also suggests that archeologists are a self-interested group guilty of working all-too-cooperatively with the dodgy regimes that happen to rule the territory where some of the world’s most significant archeological sites are located.

As president and director of the Art Institute, Cuno presides over a world-class art collection that cuts across the centuries from the ancient to the modern. With thousands of masterpieces to choose from, one of Cuno’s favorites is a 14th-Century German monstrance, an 18-inch-tall silver reliquary whose design resembles a Gothic church. Its focal point is an exquisite rock crystal bottle that contains a tooth said to belong to John the Baptist. The bottle, made in medieval Egypt during the Fatimid Caliphate, was originally a vessel for perfume. With the collapse of the Fatimids, it probably ended up in Constantinople, and from there was carried off to northern Europe after Crusaders sacked Byzantium—a textbook example of cultural cross-fertilization producing an artistic masterpiece.

“Here you have a secular object, made in a Muslim context, transformed into a sacred reliquary for the holiest of Christian saints,” explains Cuno.

The lesson, he says, is that culture doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Items such as the monstrance demonstrate what he describes as the “hybridity and interrelatedness” of the world’s cultures.

“My argument is that there is no such thing as autonomous culture,” he says. “Culture has never been ethnically pure; culture is not national.”

Cuno, 57, is a compact man who inhabits a spacious and tastefully decorated office at the Art Institute. Soft-spoken and solicitous, he carries himself with the air of a slightly distracted Ivy League professor. He arrived in Chicago four years ago after stints as director of the Harvard University art museums and the University of London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art.

Earlier this year, Cuno was on almost everyone’s shortlist to become the next director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art after the aristocratic and long-reigning Philippe de Montebello announced that he was stepping down. Although the Met ultimately picked one of its own curators for the post in September, Cuno’s book, which features a photo of the heavily guarded entrance of the Baghdad Museum on the front cover and a ringing endorsement from de Montebello on the back, was seen by some as a not-so-subtle pitch for the job. As it turned out, the controversy that has grown up around book may have hurt his chances.

The book is a spirited attack on what Cuno calls “nationalist retentionist cultural property laws.” These are the laws that virtually every country in the world uses to protect its archeological sites and claim sovereignty over culturally significant artifacts on its territory. Most of these laws are based on the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which has been signed and ratified by 93 nations (but not the U.S.), and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, signed and ratified by 111 nations (including the U.S.).

Cuno argues that cultural property laws are chauvinistic and elitist, and that governments use these laws to impose a bogus national identity on cultural objects. The result, he says, is that the world’s ancient artistic legacy is in danger of being held hostage to the nationalist agendas of petty tyrants.

No doubt when despots and dictators (and even some democrats) draft cultural property laws, the words they use tend to imbue the past with a lot of pumped-up nationalistic blather. Look no further than Saddam, who once declared the treasures of ancient Mesopotamia to be “the most precious relics Iraqis possess, showing the world that our country [and the Baath party are] . . . the offspring of previous civilizations which offered up a great contribution to mankind.” To drive home the point, Saddam commissioned a giant wall-carving, executed in the style of ancient Babylon. It shows the Iraqi dictator shaking hands with Hammurabi, first king of the Babylonian empire.

Cuno mocks the Iraqi dictator’s hubris. “Whatever it is, Iraqi national culture certainly doesn’t include the antiquities of the region’s Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian past,” he tells us in his book. And the Iraqis, he adds, are hardly the only usurpers of someone else’s culture.

“What is the relationship between, say, modern Egypt and the antiquities that were part of the land’s Pharaonic past? The people of modern-day Cairo do not speak the language of the ancient Egyptians, do not practice their religion, do not make their art, wear their dress, eat their food, or play their music, and they do not adhere to the same kinds of laws or form of government the ancient Egyptians did. All that can be said is that they occupy the same (actually less) stretch of the Earth’s geography,” he writes.

He goes on to ask what credible claim Lebanon or Libya can possibly lay to the ancient Roman ruins found within their modern borders, or for that matter, what does the modern nation-state of Italy, which only came into being in 1946, have to do with the Roman and Etruscan civilizations that once inhabited its land.

None and nothing are Cuno’s answers. The treasures of antiquity belong to mankind and must be preserved and shared accordingly. And this, according to Cuno, is where archeologists have got it all wrong.

Archeologists generally support national laws that strictly regulate commerce in antiquities and access to archeological sites. They do so because they see it as the best way—really the only way—to protect these places and objects from looters and the lucrative black market they serve.

But Cuno says the archeologists’ position is selfish, shortsighted and even immoral. The archeological community, he argues, goes along with restrictive cultural property laws only because the governments that make these laws control “the goods”—the sites and objects that are vital to the archeologists’ livelihood.

According to Cuno, the archeologists’ complicity not only limits the public’s access to cultural treasures, but also aids and abets despots like Saddam who use the mythology of the past to prop up their regimes.

“Oh no, they say, we do scientific work; we have no control over how it is used,” Cuno argues. “Well, I’m not a moral philosopher . . . but I think there is a question of the morality of working with a blind eye to the despotic practices of certain regimes.”

In the larger debate about who owns antiquity, Cuno’s attack on archeologists is a bit of a sideshow. They attack him; he attacks back. His real target is the expanding body of cultural property law that is forcing museums—most notably the Met in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts—to return ancient artifacts that were illegally removed from their country of origin.

Cuno fervently believes that museums, especially the so-called encyclopedic museums that hold diverse, cross-cultural collections, are the proper places for these ancient artifacts. These museums, he argues, give historical treasures the broadest possible audience.

Cuno and I are standing in front of a pedestal that holds an elegant bronze head, part of dazzling new exhibition of African art from the Kingdom of Benin that opened at the Art Institute this summer. Cuno notes that the piece we are admiring was made in the 12th Century— “two full centuries ahead of the Renaissance.” Many of the objects in the Benin exhibition were seized in a “punitive expedition” carried out by the British army against Benin’s king in 1897. The plundered items were shipped back to Europe and many ended up in museums, including the Art Institute. The new exhibition is drawn from the collections of the British Museum, the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris and the national ethnology museums in Berlin and Vienna.

“By bringing these beautiful objects together under one roof, encyclopedic museums allow us to make the connections between different cultures, which I think encourages better understanding and tolerance of these cultures,” he says.

And if there are some niggling doubts about whether a particular piece may or may not have been illegally removed from its country of origin, Cuno’s attitude seems to be, well, so what.

The archeological community takes a somewhat more rigorous view of these niceties. What most concerns archeologists is anything that strips an artifact of context. Context in the scientific sense refers to the knowledge that can be gleaned from the surroundings in which an object is found. When looters disturb archeological sites, upsetting the stratigraphic layers of soil, casting aside or destroying other useful information, and then fudging where they found a particular object, they have effectively stripped the object of its archeological context. “Context is the most powerful tool we have for understanding ancient civilizations,” says Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. To illustrate, he tells how scholars in the early years of the 20th Century held widely divergent views on when humans arrived in the New World.

“The first proof positive came [in 1927] when archeologists digging in New Mexico found an extinct form of bison—and stuck right into the ribs of this guy was a chipped stone spearhead. That proved humans were here before the Ice Age,” says Stein. The spearhead embedded in the bison’s body is the context. “Without the context, it’s just another chipped stone spearhead,” he says. Cuno and the directors of other encyclopedic museums believe that context is overrated.

The Met’s de Montebello is particularly adamant on the point. He recently told a reporter that “98 percent of everything we know about antiquity we know from objects that were not out of digs.” And referring to one particularly prized item that his museum was forced to return to Italy, he asked, “How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole . . . it came out of?”

I asked Cuno if he agreed with de Montebello’s 98 percent statement. “I couldn’t put a percentage on it,” he said. But in his book, Cuno leaves little doubt where he stands:

“Archeological reports can never take the place of gallery presentations of antiquities. Only the object—the actual antiquity, the thing itself, there on view, ineluctably ancient, with the aura and fracture of age—has the allure to attract the people’s curiosity.”

This, of course, is not Mac Gibson’s view. He says that understanding the culture behind the object and the mind that created it are what matter most. Objects without context, no matter how tastefully displayed in the galleries of great museums, are little more than knickknacks. “Beautiful and intriguing,” he says, “but still just knickknacks.”

Last December, U.S. customs agents at O’Hare International Airport intercepted a package that was being shipped from an obscure auction house in Cleveland to an address in Australia.

Six items were listed on the invoice, but one in particular caught the attention of investigators: a “Babylonian Clay Foundation Cone, circa 2100 B.C.” The cone was about 4 1/2 inches long and covered with cuneiform inscriptions (see cover photo). Such cones were typically placed in the foundation or interior walls of buildings in ancient Sumer as dedications to the gods.

Customs officials called in Clemens Reichel, an archeologist at the University of Chicago, to examinethe piece. He quickly determined that it was authentic, in good condition, and recently excavated from the ancient city of Girsu, now Telloh, in the southern Iraq province of Dhi Qar. Reichel also translated the inscription, which turned out to be homage from the local governor to the deities Ningirsu and Enlil.

The chain of transactions that brought the foundation cone from Dhi Qar province to O’Hare is a long one, but from his desktop computer at the Oriental Institute, Gibson can use Google Earth to zoom in on ground zero of the illegal antiquities trade. If you know where to look, the evidence of looting is easy to spot.

In the satellite images summoned up by Gibson, dozens of the world’s most important archeological sites are pock-marked with hundreds of tiny holes, as though they have been infested with an army of burrowing insects; at ground level, the holes are craters, about the size of a backyard swimming pool, dug by locals scavenging for anything that they might be able to sell.

The most common finds are clay cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals. A cylinder seal—a small stone object engraved with a picture story—might earn the local finder a few dollars, but the price increases spectacularly as it moves up the chain. In the souks of Baghdad or Damascus it might get $100; by the time an artifact reaches a gallery in London or New York, it can sometimes fetch five figures, says Gibson.

The most serious charge leveled by the archeologists is that the trade in looted antiquities is contributing to American casualties in Iraq.

“People think it’s all taking place in the rarefied atmosphere of Christie’s or Sotheby’s, but the money made along the way—dirty money—is funding the insurgents, funding the IEDs (improvised exploding devices) that are killing American soldiers,” says Stein, Gibson’s colleague at the Oriental Institute.

This charge is backed up by Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, who conducted the U.S. military’s 2003 investigation into the looting of the Iraqi National Museum. According to Bogdanos, insurgent groups have inserted themselves into the smuggling chain, levying a tax on the antiquities as they are smuggled across Iraq’s borders—much the way the Taliban taxes the opium trade in Afghanistan.

“You don’t have opium in Iraq but you do have unlimited supplies of antiquities,” says Bogdanos, an assistant Manhattan district attorney in civilian life. “What we saw in the beginning was Al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents using antiquities as a target of opportunity. Now it’s the Shiite militias. It’s not their main source of funding—kidnapping and extortion are still the main sources—but antiquities are on the list.”

Cuno, in his book, dismisses Bogdanos as a “self-styled antiquities policeman” and notes that in 2006 the Iraqi government shifted control of the county’s antiquities from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Tourism, which happens to be headed by the militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr’s followers have posted notices at several archeological sites claiming, in their leader’s name, that it is permissible to remove and sell items from the sites so long as a cut of the money is donated to mosque construction or to the insurgency. Why, Cuno asks, are archeologists so eager to return Iraq’s antiquities to local control?

Gibson says that’s the wrong question. He lays the blame not on the looters or al-Sadr or the insurgents who take their cut, but on the museums for heating up the illicit market by buying suspect antiquities or encouraging collectors to buy on their behalf.

“The dealer will come to a museum with this Mesopotamian stuff for sale, and the museum director will say, ‘Well, we can’t buy it, but why don’t you take it to Mister X, the famous collector,’ ” says Gibson.

The museum is hoping that Mister X will buy the antiquities and then lend them back to the museum. The collector is usually happy with this arrangement. By having his purchases on display in a prestigious museum, he is suddenly the owner of “museum quality” objects; this automatically enhances the value of his investment while burnishing his reputation as an arts patron. “It makes the whole transaction seem legitimate,” says Gibson.

Cuno angrily rejects the accusation: “No reputable museum would ever do that. It’s a cynical fantasy.”

The Art Institute of Chicago does not have a Mesopotamian collection, so its hands are clean in that particular department, but Roger Atwood, a Washington-based journalist and author of a recent book about looted antiquities, says there are plenty of prominent museums whose collections do raise questions.

As recently as 2006, Atwood was conducting public tours of the Met and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, pointing out the likely illicit origin of many items in their display galleries. These included not just the freshly looted plunder from Iraq, but also objects from Italy and pre-Columbian antiquities from the Americas. Even today, the Met has on display items from Iraq that many experts, including Bogdanos and Atwood, consider suspect.

“Cuno pretends not to see it,” Atwood says of the link between the wealthy collectors who drive the market for antiquities and the looting of archeological sites. “But it’s right there.”

Atwood and other experts say that when museums agree to accept items loaned or donated by collectors—often important patrons of the museum—it is no accident; it is the museum industry’s basic business model.

“Collectors will buy an object on the open market, keep it for a while, and then loan it to a museum or donate it for a tax write-off,” says Atwood. “This is the system by which museums have built up great collections. It’s basically a good system. Museums can’t always afford a Picasso on their own.” But the downside, he says, is a system often abused by collectors and museums to “finance retroactively, through the taxpayers, the destruction of ancient sites.”

Few would quibble with the notion that buying looted antiquities is not good, but Cuno’s book challenges this thinking: “If undocumented antiquities are the result of looted (and thus destroyed) archeological sites, that there is still a market for them anywhere is a problem. Keeping them from U.S. art museums is not a solution, only a diversion.”

Cuno argues that looting occurs because looters are poor, and the trend toward increasingly stringent cultural property laws does nothing to address the root problem—poverty. These laws, and particularly the 1970 UNESCO convention, should be scrapped, he says.

Even in the museum community, this is considered a slightly extreme view, and Erin Hogan, a spokeswoman for Chicago’s Art Institute, says that views expressed in Cuno’s book are his own and do not reflect the Art Institute’s policy. In light of the high-profile cases that forced the Met, the Getty and Boston Museum of Fine Arts to return stolen objects, most museum boards in the U.S. have adopted voluntary guidelines restricting the acquisition of any ancient object without documentation that it was out of its country of origin before 1970, or that it was legally exported from that country after 1970—the year of the UNESCO convention.

There also is encouraging evidence that the cultural property laws—the laws Cuno derides as “nationalist retentionist”—are actually working. Italian authorities recently reported a significant decline in the looting of archeological sites since it began pursuing museums and dealers in U.S. courts.

“[Cuno] portrays nation-states as these terrible things, but like it or not, we live in a world where you have to deal with nation-states,” says Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University and a leading authority on cultural property. Gerstenblith says that given the realities on the ground, sovereign nations are the only entities capable of policing the archeological patrimony on their territory. Even if today’s Iraqis and Egyptians do not share the DNA of the ancient civilizations that once flourished on their territories, she says, “we want these nations to feel vested in the past; we want them to take care of it.”

Of course, some sovereign states have failed egregiously in this regard—the Taliban’s malevolent destruction of the Great Buddhas of Bamyan comes to mind—but most take their responsibilities seriously. Iraq, in particular, always had a good record of protecting its antiquities, dating back to the days when Gertrude Bell, the formidable British Arabist who literally drew Iraq’s borders in the early 20th Century, wrote the law creating Iraq’s Department of Antiquities and placed herself in charge. Even when the Baath Party came to power in 1968, the department continued to be well-funded and Iraq’s archeological sites well-protected. Saddam grasped the political value of archeology and tried to use the mythology of Iraq’s ancient past to gloss over differences among his nation’s rival Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Not surprisingly, the archeological community believes tougher enforcement of existing laws is the solution. They argue that criminal penalties, rather than just the forfeiture of looted items, would go a long way toward cooling the market for looted antiquities. As a practical matter, such cases are difficult to prosecute. When dealers or collectors or museums are caught with looted goods, they usually plead ignorance; the burden of proof falls on the prosecution to demonstrate the accused knew that an item was obtained illegally.

But the cozy world of dealers and collectors received a jolt in 2002 when Frederick Schultz, a prominent Manhattan gallery owner and former president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art, was given a 33-month prison sentence and fined $500,000 for conspiring to sell antiquities stolen from Egypt. It marked one of the few times anyone has gone to prison for trafficking in stolen antiquities.

Despite the flood of looted material from Iraq, the only successful prosecution involving Iraqi antiquities has been the peculiar case of Joseph Braude, a 29-year-old author and frequent contributor to the New Republic magazine. He was convicted in 2004 of lying to U.S. customs officials about three cylinder seals he bought for $400 on a Baghdad street. The seals had been looted from the National Museum. During his trial, Braude, an expert on Iraq, admitted he suspected the seals were stolen and said he planned to turn them over to U.S. authorities. He eventually entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to six months of house arrest.

It is worth noting that in Saddam’s Iraq, the penalty for this crime would have been death.
On April 11, 2003, three days after American tanks rumbled into Baghdad and the day after looters swarmed the Iraq National Museum like a plague of locusts, Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon press corps enjoyed a little laugh at the expense of Iraq’s catastrophe. “The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times and you think, ‘My goodness, were there that many vases?’ Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?” the defense secretary asked with mock astonishment. This was vintage Rumsfeld, and the journalists chuckled appreciatively. The looting would continue for two more days.

Stolen Artifacts Returned to Iraq

New York Times article

June 10, 2008

Compiled by BEN SISARIO

A cache of ancient artifacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq during the American-led invasion in 2003 were returned to Iraq’s Antiquities Ministry on Monday in a ceremony in Baghdad, Reuters reported. The items, 11 cylinder seals made from agate and alabaster between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C., were found in Philadelphia last month by American customs officials and turned over to the Iraqi embassy in Washington, a spokesman for the ministry said. Thousands of pieces were looted after the 2003 invasion, and Iraqi officials have blamed the pilfering on smugglers and occupying troops. The National Museum said that 15,000 items were stolen and that up to 6,000 have been returned. In April, Syria returned more than 700 stolen artifacts seized by its customs officers. “This is only the start,” Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, said of the cylinders’ return. “We hope to return more of these pieces in the near future.” The National Museum remains closed to the public because of its poor condition and a lack of security.

Cultural Property at War: Protecting Heritage during Armed Conflict





General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945 inspecting art looted by the Germans and stored in the Merkers salt mine during World War II (behind him are General Omar N. Bradley, left, and Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr., right). Photo: Courtesy of U.S. National Archives.

By Corine Wegener and Marjan Otter

At the end of 1943, as war raged in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to his commanders in Italy, clearly expressing his intent to spare cultural property from damage whenever possible:

“Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.”

This statement and other protective measures for cultural property were a direct result of concerted efforts by governments, the military, and cultural heritage professionals of many of the Allied nations to protect Europe’s cultural heritage during World War II. Nonetheless, countless icons of our shared cultural heritage were damaged, looted, or destroyed during the conflict. In response, the nations of the world gathered in the Netherlands to draft the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, in an attempt to ensure that such losses of cultural heritage during war would never again occur.

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