Subject: Re: Re; looting of the National Museum of Iraq
One of the most sensible opinions I have heard since all of this started. I'm sure that the priority of US troops was the preservation of life rather than property. That does not make the looting of Iraq's national treasures any less painful and, I too am saddened by what happened. Another thing to keep in mind is that the treasures were looted by Iraqis and not members of the US armed forces. Do we think that maybe those who planned and carried out this travesty should shoulder some of the blame as well?
Tim Szczepanski, CIPM Chief of Protective Services Toledo Museum of Art PO Box 1013 Toledo, OH 43697 Phone 419-255-8000 ext.7307 Fax 419-255-5638 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Van Gogh: Fields Feb. 23 - May 18 Splendid Pages Feb. 14 - May 11 Tickets 419-243-7000 or 888-763-7486
email@example.com 05/01/03 09:31AM
Re; looting of the National Museum of Iraq As an archeologist turned insurance underwriter I was horrified with the scenes of the looting from the museum in Baghdad. However, I refrained from making judgements particularly as respects placing the blame in its entirety on the United States military.
Little has been found of plunder from '91
By Martin Gottlieb with Barry Meier (NYT) Friday, May 2, 2003
LONDON: After a rampage of museum looting in Iraq following the Gulf War in 1991, American and British archaeologists compiled a list of more than 2,000 stolen objects, a sad catalogue of losses to the history of civilization.
Eleven years later, experts say, no more than half a dozen of the pieces have been tracked down. Many others are presumed to have been traded through a thriving international market in antiquities. The poor record of returning artifacts lost after the 1991 war suggests the daunting obstacles that museum officials and police investigators face as they commit to finding items recently sacked from the National Museum in Baghdad and other sites.
The plunder from 1991 added fuel to a global industry of scavengers, shippers and international traders who funneled stolen items from Iraq into the hands of private collectors overseas. While reputable art dealers and owners insist they work hard to identify and avoid illicit goods, eager buyers continue to demand rare items, and the market flourishes.
"Sometimes we feel we are fighting a war we have already lost," said Manus Brinkman, secretary-general of the International Council of Museums in Paris.
The booty from the Baghdad museum includes invaluable one-of-a-kind treasures as well as thousands of artifacts of everyday ancient life. John Curtis, who heads the British Museum's Near East department, said that paper records and microfilm were strewn about in a way that would take the staff "months if not years to sort out."
Museum curators and law enforcement officials say that the disarray and loss of documents will make it especially difficult to recover the artifacts. To show that an item has been stolen, experts require papers tracing it to an ancient site or museum. Many Iraqi objects lost in the 1991 looting were removed from sites and understaffed museums without careful recording in photographs and catalogues.
"These cases can be a nightmare," said Tony Russell, a former detective sergeant with Scotland Yard's art squad, who is now with the James Mintz Group, an investigative agency. Stolen artifacts often disappear for years before emerging for sale.
Other factors add to the difficulties: the ease with which material can slip through customs, the meager numbers of police officers assigned to art theft and the circuitous trails of ownership in the often gray world of trading.
More than 10,000 identified archaeological sites in Iraq hold remnants of Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and other seminal cultures dating as far back as 10,000 years. A law adopted in the 1930s made it illegal to remove artifacts from Iraq without state permission, and archaeologists and dealers say that relatively few ancient pieces came out before the Gulf War in 1991.
In the waning days of the fighting, nine of 13 regional museums were ransacked. Experts believe that the early sprees were spontaneous, without participation by professional thieves. Subsequently, a system of organized smuggling developed.McGuire Gibson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago, said there were reports that local leaders would accept payments from middlemen to allow ancient sites to be pillaged, often with small armies of local people digging for little compensation.
From the sites, law enforcement sources said, items often made their way to Amman, Jordan, a major trafficking point with an active bazaar and a few powerful dealers.
From Jordan and other regional trade centers, the goods often passed through Switzerland. Laws there are more favorable than in many other countries to buyers, who say they bought objects without knowing that they were stolen. So far there have been only unconfirmed reports of recently looted objects being offered for sale in the West. Antiquities experts said the most valuable artifacts taken from the Baghdad museum were too well known to be offered publicly for sale. They include a lyre from the Sumerian city of Ur, bearing the gold-encased head of a bull, circa 2400 B.C., and a cast copper mask of an Akkadian king from Nineveh that was more than 4,000 years old. They fear, however, that such items might disappear into obscure private collections, or worse, be melted down for their metal content.
More commonplace jars, vases and tablets will surely make their way to the market, authorities predicted. They warned that traders might try to sell in the coming six months, while museums are working to compile a catalogue of the newly looted items. In a rare display of unity, dealers are joining with archaeologists and curators to declare they will try to stop any trade in Iraqi objects.
The New York Times
Global Hunt Is Launched For Iraq's Looted Heritage
Treasure Trove of Antiquities May Prove Difficult to Recover
By Guy Gugliotta Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, May 2, 2003; Page A03
Investigators and experts are mounting an international initiative to recover artifacts stolen in the catastrophic looting of Iraq's National Museum of Antiquities. But their efforts are sobered by the knowledge that stolen museum pieces -- especially those lost in massive quantities -- are almost never recovered.
The Iraqi museum held 175,000 items before the war. It is not clear how many of them were plundered, but the losses will dwarf the estimated 2,000 to 4,000 objects looted from nine regional Iraqi museums in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Then, as now, scholars and art theft experts moved rapidly to document and catalogue the losses. But after 12 years, they have almost nothing to show for their efforts. Perhaps two dozen of the lost museum items have resurfaced, and only a handful -- perhaps as few as two -- have been hunted down and reclaimed.
"When material is stolen en masse, chances of recovery are very, very small," said Lyndel V. Prott, the former director of Cultural Heritage for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. "It's a huge job to mount such a recovery campaign. That's why cultural professionals are horrified by Iraq. Once it's gone, it's almost impossible to get it back."
It may go better this time. Unlike in 1991, when Saddam Hussein remained in control of a pariah state, today's Iraq can count on cooperation and help not only from world scholars, but also from international organizations and a U.S. government chastened by charges that its soldiers watched and did nothing as the looting took place.
Or it may go worse. In 1991, the task of cataloguing the lost items was daunting but doable, especially with the help of the National Museum's outstanding archive. This time, the losses are immense, and the archive is damaged and perhaps unusable.
Then there is the shifting nature of the looters. In 1991, they were mobs running wild in a brief and spontaneous uprising. This time, there were probably professionals in their ranks -- some were said to have had glass cutters and keys to the vaults or to have known exactly what to steal.
Joseph Collins, the Pentagon official who held a prewar meeting for experts to discuss how to protect Iraqi antiquities, suggested that U.S. troops who have been blamed for not preventing the looting may not have "fiddled while Rome burned," because the best items may have been taken before the break-in. "In many cases, keys were obtained -- how is that compatible with the notion of the valiant museum staff?" asked Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations.
Regardless of where the finger of blame ultimately points, the dismal results of the past 12 years confirm that the looters have learned their trade, experts say. What began in 1991 as an opportunistic snatch-and-grab was transformed by 2003 into the predatory and systematic pillage of one of the world's great treasure troves.
"At first, the looters were the people on the street," said archaeologist and art historian John Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art. But as time passed, "it became clear that there was no enforcement anymore, and an organized network built up," he added. "I don't know whether it was foreign or domestic, or whether the state was involved."
Beginning about 1995, large amounts of Mesopotamian material began showing up on the antiquities market, he said. Most items were cuneiform tablets and smaller pieces that had probably been stolen from archaeological sites. These had never been seen or catalogued before and were impossible to trace.
The museum pieces were a different story. Iraqi law requires that everything excavated within the nation's borders be turned over to the National Museum, which catalogues and numbers the collections, then distributes samples to the regional museums. As soon as he heard of the 1991 lootings, University of Chicago archaeologist McGuire Gibson contacted the National Museum and colleagues in the United States and Britain to put together a quickie, 52-page catalogue of everything known to have been taken: "We gave one to U.S. Customs, another one to Interpol, another one to the British," recalled Gibson, an Iraq specialist. "The idea was to get it out there as quickly as possible."
Within 18 months, the British School of Archaeology had published a second volume, and Japanese experts produced a third in what came to be known as the "Lost Heritage" series. In the end, Gibson said, the booklets held pictures and descriptions of about 2,000 items that had disappeared from the regional museums.
There were successes. In 2001, New York University fine arts expert Donald Hansen received a telephone call from the London-based Art Loss Register, an international database that keeps a record of stolen works of art and antiques.
A small, peg-shaped Sumerian copper figurine had been sent to Christie's New York office, and the London-based auctioneer wanted to know if it was the one on page 50 of Gibson's book -- the peg that had been looted from the regional museum in northern Kirkuk in 1991. Yes, it was, said Hansen, who had excavated the 4,500-year-old figurine from the temple of the goddess Inanna at Al-Hiba, in southern Iraq. Known as a "foundation nail," the figurine had been sent by the National Museum to Kirkuk: "I identified it, and it was turned over to Customs," Hansen said. The case is pending. Customs did not respond to requests to discuss it.
The figurine is covered by several U.S. laws. Under a UNESCO convention ratified by the United States in 1983, it is illegal to import material stolen from a museum. Also, federal law makes it illegal to receive stolen property. Under the sanctions in force, it is illegal to import anything from Iraq.
"It's radioactive material," said attorney William Pearlstein, a specialist in antiquities law and a frequent consultant to antiquities dealers and collectors. "It's stolen, it's illegal to own it, and it's morally and ethically untenable to traffic in it. No museum is going to touch this stuff."
Similar controls prevail in Britain, but Japan and many nations on the European continent have laws that are less stringent . Antiquities specialist Patty Gerstenblith of the DePaul University law school noted that many European countries allow a "good-faith purchaser" to acquire legitimate title to unclaimed property after a statute of limitations has run out.
"There are occasions when things have been on the black market for some years and have acquired a [document] trail," suggesting a string of purchases, added Prott, the former UNESCO cultural heritage chief. "When that happens, they might pop up in the legitimate market."
In a celebrated case, a scholar spotted the second-century A.D. stone head of "Medossa" in a London shop window in 2001 and alerted authorities. UNESCO authenticated the piece as a sculpture stolen from the ruins of the Parthian city of Hatra. British police seized it and eventually returned it to Iraq.
But most cases are not cut and dried. In the mid-1990s, the Massachusetts College of Art's Russell began seeing catalogues advertising pieces of relief sculptures he had photographed at the on-site museum at Nineveh, the fabled center of the Assyrian Empire.
He published his photographs and spread the word that the sculptures were in circulation. In 1996, he said, Shlomo Moussaieff, a well-known Israeli collector based in London, applied for a Customs license to export several Assyrian sculptures to Israel, at least one of which belonged to the photographed collection. Moussaieff did not respond to requests by The Post to discuss the case.
According to Russell and news accounts, Iraq sued to recover the piece, but Moussaieff said he had purchased it in good faith in Switzerland from a Belgium-based dealer. Moussaieff finally surrendered the sculpture, but only after Iraq paid him the equivalent of $15,000. Despite these few highly publicized cases, scholars say it is clear that looted museum material is circulating. University of Buffalo classicist Samuel Paley routinely fields telephone inquiries from dealers and collectors about whether a piece is sellable or buyable. "They always say it's from an 'old European collection,' " he said, adding that as soon as he hears that, he knows it is not true. When he tells the caller that the item is stolen, it never appears on the market, he said, but, "I never find the guy who's holding it, either."
Jordan confiscates stolen Iraqi art
By SHAFIKA MATTAR - Associated Press
AMMAN, Jordan (AP) -- Jordanian customs officers have confiscated dozens of archaeological items, artworks and other items that may have been stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad or Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces, officials said Thursday.
Khalaf al-Hazaymeh, deputy director of the Customs Department, said no arrests were made yet among the travelers leaving Iraq because officials must first determine if the items were stolen or legitimately purchased.
Items seized included seven statues, two old manuscripts, 26 historical books, a Quran and three copper Shiite pots engraved with the names of the imams.
Also found were 11 carpets, a warrior's helmet, a wooden pot with the name of Prophet Muhammad engraved on it, another wooden carafe ornamented with precious stones, 43 paintings, 61 photos, a family album belonging to Saddam and several golden pots and utensils.
"Those stolen items will be deposited at the Department of Archaeology until the situation in Iraq is settled and security is restored," al-Hazaymeh said. Travelers were given receipts for the seized items.
Iraq's museums held priceless, millennia-old collections from the Assyrian, Sumerian and Babylonian cultures. Ancient Mesopotamia -- modern-day Iraq -- was the cradle of urban civilization.
After the fall of Saddam's government on April 9, looters stole and smashed priceless archaeological treasures from the National Museum in Baghdad and other museums and libraries.
Many Iraqis criticized U.S. troops for doing little to stop the theft.
On Wednesday, Jordan appointed an employee to help customs officials at the al-Karameh border post recover Iraqi cultural treasures.
Al-Karameh post has been Iraq's lifeline since sweeping U.N. sanctions were imposed in the wake of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The desert outpost was used for shipments of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies to Iraq and for people embarking on a 12-hour overland trip to Baghdad.
Al-Karameh is 260 miles northeast of the Jordanian capital, Amman.
A shameful theft of the crown jewels of memory
Beware of memory. For the time being, 2003 marks the fall of a hated tyrant. In years to come it may mean something else, the destruction of the greatest treasure from the oldest age of Western civilisation. We know of the sacking of the Library at Alexandria in AD624. Who cares what caused it?
Until this week only soldiers and reporters had witnessed the devastation of the National Museum of Baghdad, the seventh biggest in the world, and the burning of the National Library, containing some 5,000 of the earliest known manuscripts. On Tuesday a team led by John Curtis from the British Museum returned from Iraq and agreed with the senior archaeologist, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, that we face the greatest heritage catastrophe since the Second World War. Though it is early days, two vast repositories of world history appear simply to have vanished.
There seems little argument over what happened. As early as January, and continually during the planning and execution of the Iraq invasion, museums in Britain and America pleaded with coalition commanders to respect the treasure houses of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. Serious looting had occurred during the bombing in 1991. Archaeologists prepared lists of buildings and these were respected by the Air Force target teams. Warnings about looting were disregarded. Tessa Jowell, the British Culture Secretary, said two weeks ago that the looting was “not predictable”. That is not true. As Lord Renfrew wrote in The Times last week, it was predicted explicitly the whole way to Downing Street.
On April 10 — the day after the “fall of Baghdad” — a museum official pleaded with a US Marine captain, Jason Conroy, to move his Abrams tank 50 yards down the road to guard the museum gates. Conroy called his commander for permission and told the official that it had been refused. This was in clear breach of the Hague Convention requiring an occupying force to take “all measures within its power” to maintain law and order and guard cultural property. Tanks were guarding the Oil Ministry. For three days Conroy’s unit stood by while crowds poured into the museum, from child vandals to gangs with cutting equipment and vehicles.
On April 13, the museum director, Donny George, again pleaded for Marine protection and was again refused. Not until April 16, after worldwide publicity, did four tanks arrive. By then the museum’s galleries and shelves were empty. Other than small objects moved to strong rooms, everything not taken had been smashed. The famous statues of 26 Assyrian kings had been decapitated. All three blocks of the National Library, with five centuries of Ottoman records and scrolls of the earliest known writing, appear to have been destroyed by fire. The museums in Basra and Mosul were looted after being hit by bombs. According to Mr Curtis, Iraq has virtually no historical archive left.
Three weeks ago the Iraqi people were freed from Saddam Hussein. Whatever view is taken of the war, that fact is undeniably good. But on April 10 a terrible mistake was made. The Iraqis were liberated not just from their immediate past, but from their past in toto. Troops seem to have regarded museums as no different from regime offices and palaces. Looters were seen as ordinary people taking revenge on Saddam. True, they were Iraqis destroying their own museum, but remove guards from any museum and looters will do the same. The fact is that for three crucial days after authority was removed from Baghdad’s streets, a coalition to which Britain was party had clear “measures within its power” to stop museum looting, and refused requests to do so. It guarded oil instead.
Much water will doubtless flow under this bitter bridge. But even the Bolsheviks protected the Hermitage during the Russian Revolution. In the Second World War, armies were under specific orders to spare historic sites and museums, even at cost to themselves. Chartres was not shelled though it contained snipers. Museums were looted, but by soldiers who respected what they were looting. They knew that a museum is not a warehouse. It is the custodian of the identity of a people. Robbing it is like seizing the crown jewels of a collective memory. It seeks to erase that memory.
While Mr Curtis was making his report, upstairs his museum was staging an eerily relevant exhibition. “The Museum of the Mind” was not of objects beautiful in themselves but the symbols of the gathered memory of individuals and nations, things that give depth and meaning to our collective existence. Here is the footprint of the Buddha, a head of Augustus, a reliquary casket, an Australian banknote. Each is an actor in the “theatre of memory”, a trace of the cultural gene. The message is thunderous. People know who they are only by reference to their past, to group memories and the objects which absorb and reflect them. Britons honour the flag, Magna Carta, an Elizabethan tapestry, the Queen’s image on a mug. Adults take comfort, or sometimes sadness, in a school uniform, a family album, a holiday souvenir. For Proust even smell and taste play a role, “waiting and hoping for their moment amid the ruins . . . ready to bear the vast structure of recollection”. The exhibition essay by John Mack goes further. “Memory,” he writes, “has never been overly concerned with authenticity . . . it does not bother to search the archives for confirmation of its assertions.” It is rather a tracing on “Freud’s mystic writing pad”. A Nigerian juju is as “true” a record of the past as is Salisbury Cathedral. Memory is perpetually entwined with the retelling of stories. A Scotsman will believe the nonsense movie Braveheart, because that is how he wants to “remember” his tribe.
This view of memory is deeply disturbing. It seems to validate false myths. The mental museum from which two British suicide bombers travelled to Tel Aviv was polluted by distorted “memories” of Islam’s relations with the West. Yet such myths are hugely potent, and seemingly beyond our power to contest. All we can do is keep bashing them with reality, with the evidence of history. That is a job of a museum. When all else fails, history is our last resort.
The Iraqis have been stripped of the raw material of their history, the evidence with which to bash such myths. They have lost the relics of the Mesopotamian culture that deepened their historical perspective. We who claim to crusade for civilised values could not summon one tank to defend their earliest repository. We stood and watched as a first link in the chain of our memory snapped. To tear off Saddam’s head we tore the heads off all his predecessors.
On Tuesday the British Museum’s director, Neil McGregor, began the task of reassembling that chain. He welcomed experts from Russia, France, Germany, Philadelphia and New York to begin perhaps the greatest task of cultural rescue. Black markets must be scoured for faces and torsos. Some shattered pieces may be reassembled. Offers of money came from Japan, Italy and Germany, but none from the clearly embarrassed Governments of Britain and America, scurrying for cover. Coalition troops have even refused border searches for looted items. A private donor had to pay for last week’s survey by the British Museum team.
I am now told that Washington is preventing the Iraqi antiquities staff, the most experienced in the Middle East, from conducting their own audit of what they have lost. This is an urgent task if police forces are to be warned of what might be recoverable. A US military base has been stationed in a wing of the museum. The coalition wants no more bad publicity about cultural losses. The insult could hardly be better designed to fuel the rumour machine.
Saddam will never return to power. But what is power? In years to come, young Iraqis will fabricate “memories” to replace those lost two weeks ago. The British Museum exhibition reminds us that “the museum of memory is not a static place but a gallery under constant refurbishment”. And what refurbishes it? The way the Americans and British are behaving in Iraq may yet replace the broken Assyrian kings with the ghost of their sinister successor — or with another like him. Memory need not be true to be real. Russians wept when Stalin died.
We should be helping the Iraqis to recapture their pride in their lost past. Instead we give them new injuries to turn into evil myths and false memories. And all for want of a tank.
Missing artifacts trickle back to Baghdad museum
Fewer taken than thought, and some are close at hand
By Bill Glauber Tribune staff reporter May 2, 2003
BAGHDAD -- It is a daunting whodunit in which the goal isn't to arrest the crooks but to get the goods back to their rightful owners: the Iraqi people.
It features diligent detective work to trace leads and uncommon diplomacy by investigators operating in a society still coming to grips with the fall of a regime and the arrival of a foreign army. This is the hunt for looted antiquities from the National Museum of Iraq. Slowly but surely, military officers and U.S. Customs agents are beginning to account for the disparate pieces of a vast museum collection from a land rich in history and artifacts thousands of years old. And what they have discovered is that far fewer pieces were looted from the museum's collection than initial reports indicated.
Fewer artifacts missing
"Some of the original reports indicated close to 170,000 items were either stolen or destroyed," said Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, who heads the investigation. "What we're finding is that the number is significantly smaller, by a factor of at least 100. "The loss of one item is a tragedy," he added. "And the recovery of a single item is exhilarating, thrilling and a moment of joy." Apparently, much of the museum's collection was moved into storage facilities before the war, Bogdanos said. The tactic is not uncommon because Iraq has faced a series of wars for more than 20 years. Museum officials have confirmed only 27 major items are missing, and Bogdanos said "there is a significant possibility that up to six of those items missing may in fact still be in the museum but under debris." Bogdanos said that smaller pieces were placed in a restoration area before the war and that some items were recently discovered beneath the rubble. Working and living out of one museum wing, investigators are photographing and accounting for nearly 700 pieces that have been returned to the frayed complex, which is secured by U.S. soldiers and tanks. "This is not the Iraqi story, this is the story of mankind," said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Roberto Piniero as he marveled over recently recovered cuneiform tablets.
But beyond accounting for remarkable antiquities retrieved under a general amnesty program, investigators are trying to unravel the scale and scope of the looting that occurred shortly after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. "My mission is recovery, not prosecution," said Bogdanos, head of an investigative team that includes 10 U.S. Customs agents. "We're trying to recover as many pieces as possible." Cracking the case is a difficult proposition in an Iraqi society still emerging from years of dictatorship presided over by Hussein's Baath Party. Fear and mistrust mix with a general uncertainty within the society.
A pillar from old regime
The museum, under the control of the State Board of Antiquities, is one of the few remaining government-run operations still functioning in Iraq, let alone presided over by Baath Party members. In a society so politicized and controlled, it was not surprising for even curators and archeologists--many renowned internationally for their skills--to become party members to ensure their professional advancement. Sources close to the investigation say they are grappling with a series of troubling questions surrounding the looting, which occurred April 10-12, two days after Fedayeen Saddam guerrillas entered the museum grounds and began firing on U.S. tanks. When the guerrillas arrived, museum officials fled. By the time the curators returned, the museum offices had been ransacked and several major pieces were missing from the main galleries.
Among the questions:
Why was there no sign of forced entry at the museum? Why were all the keys missing? If items were removed from the gallery in preparation for war, why was such a valued piece as the 5,000-year-old Sacred Vase of Warka kept in the museum? Since looting ended, hundreds of items have been returned under an amnesty program. Free Iraqi Forces recovered 465 items in a museum storage case after intercepting two men who were driving from Al Kut toward the Iranian border. Bogdanos and his team has determined those items came from a single storage magazine, which contains documented copies, not originals. Most of the items were not historically significant. The items were authenticated copies the museum acquired either for teaching purposes or "to take them off the market," Bogdanos said. "Most of the copies are the cuneiform tablets," he said. "There is a market [for those items] over the last 10 years." Investigators have also been able to detail the exact locations where some goods were stored in preparation for war. An air raid shelter in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood contains about 500 boxes filled with manuscripts, valuable books and parchment documents. The vault at the National Bank also contains "virtually all the gold and jewelry" from the collection, Bogdanos said.
Sticky situation arises
The boxes at the air raid shelter have proved to be a sticky subject for the investigators as U.S. forces face skepticism. When U.S. troops attempted Sunday to return the boxes to the museum, people in the neighborhood insisted the items stay in the shelter, which has thick doors and secure locks. Bogdanos said residents told him they wanted to watch over the boxes because they wanted to "return them to a democratic government of Iraqi people." One of the men involved in a neighborhood watch to guard the bomb shelter said some in the area had reservations about turning the goods over to American troops. "Things are definitely safer here," said Abdul Karim Katham Hasoon, as he stood watch over the shelter. "At least the U.S. troops will not touch them."
Iraq and ruin
As looters ransacked the Baghdad Museum after Saddam's fall, Donny George - the man responsible for its priceless collection - had to watch in horror, dodging bullets as he tried to stop them. He survived but most of the antiquities were stolen or smashed. So can he hope to rebuild Iraq's national collection? Neal Ascherson finds out
Friday May 2, 2003 The Guardian
Donny George reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of lined paper, torn off a pad. "I don't know why I still carry it around". Scribbled on it in ballpoint is a request for free access to the Baghdad Museum for George, the acting director, and Dr Jabir Khalil, of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities. It is signed by Lieutenant-Colonel PA Zarcone, civil affairs officer for the 1st Marine Infantry Division. That was Sunday, April 13. The two men, who had been sheltering from the fighting in nearby houses, had heard reports that the museum was being sacked and had managed to reach the Palestine hotel where the Marines had a command post. Colonel Zarcone assured them that he would order local American troops to protect the museum. But when they reached the site, they saw at once that it was too late. The "crime of the century", as George calls it, was over. It had taken place on the previous Thursday, Friday and Saturday, as hordes of looters, in pairs or in gangs, carried out of the galleries what they could steal and smashed what they could not. The nearby American tanks had done nothing to stop them. Their crews shrugged off frantic appeals from museum staff to move a few yards and block off the entrance. No way. They had no orders.
George went back to the Palestine, borrowed a satellite phone from the Channel 4 team and called his friend John Curtis at the British Museum. "I said, 'We are here with no protection, the museum has been looted, we are afraid that the looters will return and maybe set fire to this building ...' And I think Neil MacGregor [the British Museum director] and John Curtis did something at a very high level. I think maybe they talked to Blair who talked to Colin Powell. The tanks came to guard the museum - but not until three days later".
This week, George was a central witness in the one-day emergency conference on Iraq's antiquities organised at the British Museum in London. The fate of the Iraq museums, the loss of the relics of humanity's first cities and writings, has appalled the world. But George does not throw blame around. He is a calm, square figure with remarkable black-and-silver eyebrows; he tells the awful story as it happened, but tells it without letting resentment show. Iraq is a polite country, and he does not have to. "As you know, many people in this country thought the war was utterly wrong and mistaken," I say to him at one point. George's dark eyes glitter a bit, but he makes no comment.
His calm is especially remarkable, because he has been through all this before. In 1991, after the Kuwait war, nine of Iraq's regional museums were looted by mobs. "We lost over 4,000 artefacts [in 2003, it is over 14,000]. Even the buildings had to be reconstructed. The looting was just the same as this time, the same combination of people. The son of the director of the Amara museum was killed in front of the building, and the director at Kirkuk was nearly killed too." George was shot at several times as he tried to stop the plundering. In short, he knew perfectly well what was likely to happen in the wake of the 2003 war, and he warned the outside world repeatedly.
Why do people loot in this way? The west was shocked at the spectacle of what was characterised as "a nation destroying its own heritage". George sees it differently. "The people saw the Americans firing on the gates of Saddam's palaces and then opening the doors to the people and saying: 'Come and take this stuff, it's yours now'. So they started, and it became a sort of rage as they attacked every government building. I don't make excuses but, you know, after 30 years of a regime like that, pressure builds up on people. Most of them were not educated, and to them the museum was just one more government building. They didn't just take antiquities but 95% of the office furniture, all computers, most of the cameras. My office was two feet deep in papers; my desk was broken into three pieces and I found my chair 100 yards away".
But there was another kind of robber. These knew just what they were after, ignoring fake statues and casts and going for the locked and barricaded storeroom. "We found glass-cutters and sets of keys. They got into the storerooms by a back route, through two steel doors and a brick wall. They clearly had a detailed plan of the building."
Exactly what they took is not yet known. But these were professionals with waiting customers, and the world's antiquities trade will soon be offered treasures from Uruk, Nimrud and Babylon. And yet George is hopeful. "I think the effort to stop this material getting on the market is far more effective than after 1991. No museum in the world would buy these things now. Only the private collectors are a danger."
George's connections with Britain and the great museums of the west go back a long way. He was born 52 years ago on the old RAF base at Habbaniyah, where his father worked as an accountant, and he finds nothing wrong with the presence of foreign archaeologists in Mesopotamia. He wears a smart German tie showing the dragon Mushusshu, pet of the god Marduk, whose effigy on the tiled Gates of Babylon is the pride of the Berlin collections. Did he think that the British Museum's mighty Assyrian hunting frieze should go back to Iraq? "Some people want it back. But I think we should see it as a very long-term loan to Britain, where many people can learn about the glory of Mesopotamia".
I ask about the feeling among some British archaeologists that Britain and America had lost the moral right to resume excavations in Iraq. He was shocked. "We have a heritage that belongs to all mankind, and the British and American expeditions have always shared in it. The British at Nineveh, the Americans at Nippur - these are our friends."
In the first days after the sacking, he and his staff went to the local mosques and asked the imams to appeal for the return of loot. "It worked! I got my computer printer back, and a good number of the Nimrud ivories, some of them gilded".
One day, two men who gave no names came and asked to see George alone. "They said that they were there during the looting, and had decided to take objects home for safe-keeping. "They would return them, they said, when things calmed down. Two days later, after the American tanks finally arrived to guard the museum, they came back to the gate. With them, broken in two pieces, was the statue of Shalmaneser III, a stone slab with cuneiform texts, two 6,000-year-old Sumerian reliefs and many portable objects. "We never asked them who they were, or where they lived. But I want to say this: they are the real Iraqis!"