May 28 - 29, 2003
- USA: Accused ringleader in Naples art theft pleads innocent
- China Uncovers Looted Buddhas
- India: Antiques Act
- USA: Police recover more stolen Civil War items (Transient tried to sell photos)
- USA: Detectives recover Picasso etching stolen from ship a year ago
- Reclaiming the Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu
- USA: Police seek vandals who struck at museum
- Greece and Canada: Elgin Marbles trip up PM in Greece
- On Iraqi highways, artifacts for sale
- Mesopotamia's vanishing treasures
- 'Thousands' of items looted insists Iraqi antiquities chief
- Global Network Aids Theft of Iraqi Artifacts
Accused ringleader in Naples art theft pleads innocent Wednesday, May 28, 2003
MIAMI — A man accused of trying to sell two stolen French paintings worth an estimated $6.7 million pleaded innocent Tuesday and was set to go to trial July 28.
Prosecutors allege Fernando Alfaro, 46, was the ringleader of an operation in which he and two other men stole the Impressionist-era paintings from a Naples beachfront home in December, then tried to sell the paintings to undercover police in Miami for $1 million. Alfaro's lawyer, David Abrams, did not return a call seeking comment. Alfaro is being held without bond in Miami-Dade County jail. Rigoberto Gonzalez, Carlos Somuano and Alfaro were arrested Feb. 11. Alfaro was released Feb. 12 from Miami-Dade County jail on $35,000 bail — before a request arrived from Naples police asking that his bail be set at $1.1 million. Alfaro was recaptured earlier this month by Miccosukee police after information was received that he may have been at the tribe's casino in Miami-Dade County. The recovered 1880 Claude Monet landscape titled "Paysage a Vetheuil" is worth $4 million. The cityscape "La Place de Trinite" painted by Auguste Renoir in 1893 is valued at $2.7 million.
Gonzalez and Somuano are also scheduled to go to trial on July 28 on charges of grand theft, burglary and dealing in stolen property.
China Uncovers Looted Buddhas
Relics Sold by Christie's Unit In October Hong Kong Auction
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 28, 2003; Page A11
BEIJING, May 27 -- A Chinese investigation of an antiquities auction last year in Hong Kong has uncovered the illegal sale of statues of Buddha from Beijing's Forbidden City leading to the detention of a Chinese American collector and a museum official who allegedly transferred the artifacts, official sources said today.
Hong Kong police are cooperating in the probe of an auction on Oct. 28 entitled "Imperial Devotions, Buddhist Treasures for the Qianlong Court," at Christie's Hong Kong Ltd. Officials said that many of the auction's 49 lots were looted from the Eight Outer Temples, a unique collection of monasteries that was part of an 18th-century summer hideaway of emperors in the Qing dynasty.
While the illegal trafficking in relics most recently gained prominence with the looting of National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad, experts say that China, with its porous borders and easily corrupted officials, has become a center for questionable sales on the international antiquities market.
Police investigating the case detained, then released on bail, Li Chunping, a wealthy Chinese American antique collector, authorities reported. An official at the monastery complex located in Chengde, 120 miles northeast of Beijing, and several other individuals also were detained in the investigation, police said.
The detentions occurred in December, but Chinese authorities kept the case secret until now. Chinese officials said they were trying to avoid embarrassing both Li, who has close relations with the Chinese government, and the city government where the monastery-museum complex -- a UNESCO World Heritage site -- is located. Chinese- language newspapers in Hong Kong first reported in mid-May that Hong Kong police were cooperating in the investigation.
Contacted by telephone in Beijing, Li acknowledged he had been detained for five days in December because "the police told me that they needed my help in some investigation." "Those people who sold me the antiques never said that these treasures were stolen. Instead, they said that they inherited them from their ancestors," Li said. "I wouldn't have bought them if I knew they were of questionable origin."
Chinese experts said the case raises questions about whether Western auction houses have permitted the trafficking in antiques from China. Hong Kong's government, meanwhile, has refused to sign a 1970 U.N. convention banning the illicit trade in cultural relics.
Victoria Cheung, a spokeswoman for Christie's Hong Kong, said the auction house was "cooperating with the Hong Kong police" and called the incident "an isolated case." Buyers of the auctioned lots have been asked not to take the artworks out of Hong Kong, official sources said. Considered most valuable among the auction material was an 18th-century enameled statue called the Buddha of Infinite Life that sold for $295,000.
The antiquities case developed after a Chinese art specialist, visiting Hong Kong from Beijing, discovered the stolen antiques during preparations for the Christie's auction, according to a Chinese source. Many of the items still had stickers from the Palace Museum, as the Forbidden City is now called, which is a major world tourist site. The art specialist, who once worked at the museum, recognized the handwriting of her bosses from the 1970s on those stickers and contacted China's Cultural Relics Bureau.
The government investigation confirmed that the objects once belonged to the Palace Museum, the sources said. Most of the relics were Buddhist statues made of bronze, gilt and gold; some of them were gifts from the sixth Dalai Lama to the Emperor Qianlong, who reigned in the 18th century. But a museum official said that the Chinese government in the 1970s ordered the Palace Museum to transfer ownership of the pieces to the Eight Outer Temples in Chengde. Such transfers were commonplace in China at the time, often done because senior officials in certain regions sought the prestige of having priceless relics nearby.
The investigation also determined that an official at the Eight Outer Temples had been selling the relics to Li, the Chinese American, one by one between 1995 and 2002. The complex of eight temples, whose construction began in the 18th century, represents the different ethnic groups in imperial China. Authorities have since closed the site.
Li is one of the biggest individual donors to Chinese charities and the vice president of the Beijing Charity Society, officials said. Li recently donated $361,000 to fight the SARS outbreak in China and another $361,000 to a police Good Samaritan crime fighters fund. Li posted a $1.46 million bond and offered to buy back the items and return them to Chengde in order to avoid prosecution, a government official said.
Chinese sources said that when police from Chengde first sought to question Li they were blocked by police in Beijing, who only allowed them to detain Li once they were assured that Li would be given first- class treatment.
"We treated him as if we were his grandsons," said Li Jinsheng, the director of the Chengde cultural relics department. "We arranged for him to stay in the most luxurious hotel here." He said he did not believe Li Chunping's protestations of innocence. "He has been involved in antiques all his life," the cultural relics director said. "Of course, he knew these items belonged to the imperial family."
Chinese experts said that over the past 20 years, the looting of China's cultural treasures has surpassed the destruction of China's relics during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. At that time, bands of radical Red Guards roamed the country torching old paintings, smashing ancient pottery and gutting temples. Headless stumps are seen today in ancient Buddhist temples because the busts have been lopped off and smuggled out of China. The area that will be flooded next week by the Three Gorges Dam in the Yangtze River valley has been a smuggler's paradise. In 1998, a 2,000-year-old, four-foot- tall candelabrum was auctioned for $2.5 million at the Asian Art Fair in New York and was deemed to have been smuggled from that region. During a wave of smuggling in the early 1990s, antique dealers said that freelance grave robbers and plunderers of excavation sites often sold their goods to dealers or diplomats who smuggled the relics out of the country. In the current wave of looting, most of the crimes have been inside jobs -- museum and government officials selling goods from warehouses. Record-keeping at those institutions is so poor that it can take years to notice a theft, experts said.
The government has said it stepped up attempts to halt antique smuggling and has even executed some smugglers, including two farmers who dug up 256 relics from ancient tombs last year.
In May 2000, the Christie's and Sotheby's auction houses auctioned three bronze animal heads, all representing the Chinese zodiac, that had been looted following the sacking of the Qing dynasty's summer palace by British and French troops in 1860. Christie's and Sotheby's refused a government request to return the items. Finally, the Poly Group Corp., an arms-trading wing of the People's Liberation Army, bought the three pieces for $6.3 million -- almost three times the appraisal price.
India: Antiques Act OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
New Delhi, May 26: Union tourism minister Jagmohan today said a Bill to amend the Antiquities and Art Treasure Act of 1972 would be introduced in the next session of Parliament to strengthen the existing law in checking antique smuggling.
“The Act in its present form is very weak and the CBI has to do a lot of running around in order to prove such cases,” Jagmohan told reporters after paying a rare visit to the CBI headquarters in C.G.. Complex of south Delhi. “The people involved in the crime of hoarding antiques are very influential and we will attempt to make a stringent law which will act as a deterrent.” The minister also had a look at the malkhana (storehouse) where priceless idols, paintings and sculptures seized during raids have been kept for years without proper care. Over 1,500 seized antiques were put on display for the Union minister. Jagmohan complimented CBI director P.C. Sharma for preventing the national heritage from going abroad.
Jagmohan said his ministry would approach different courts for permission to keep the antiques in special galleries at museums since the malkhana was too cramped. The minister was of the opinion that “antiques need special care by specialised people. Some of them need regular cleaning with chemicals while some need special lights. This is not possible in the CBI malkhana”.
Directing the agency to prepare an estimate for modernisation of the storehouse so that his ministry could consider providing grants, Jagmohan said CBI officers dealing with antiques would be trained at the Archaeological Survey Institute to be set up soon.
Earlier, officers from the CBI’s antique cell met the minister to apprise him of the problems they were facing in investigating serious antique smuggling cases.
Police recover more stolen Civil War items
Transient tried to sell photos
By Karen Hibdon, firstname.lastname@example.org
May 29, 2003
When Michael Trujillo's office in Simi Valley was burglarized and artifacts and Civil War memorabilia -- estimated to be worth up to $150,000 -- stolen, he predicted it was only a matter of time before the thief or thieves would be caught because of a tight-knit network of collectors who watch out for one another.
"This is a really big hit to the Western Americana world," Trujillo said following the April 25 theft of a Gen. George Armstrong Custer family photo album (circa 1862), 72 original photographs of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and a 998-page medical lexicon (how-to book for doctors) that had belonged to a field doctor at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Trujillo's prediction came true, in part, Wednesday, when Simi Valley police, assisted by the detectives from the Beverly Hills Police Department, arrested a man attempting to have 10 Sherman photographs appraised at the Steve Turner Galleries in Beverly Hills.
Delanor Chapman, a transient from the Santa Monica area, was arrested on suspicion of possession of stolen property and taken to the Simi police station, where he was questioned and later released pending further investigation, police said. Shortly thereafter, police announced they are seeking Richard Aguilar, 36, in connection with the theft of Trujillo's property. He is described as a transient who has lived in the Simi Valley area and is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, 170 pounds, with brown eyes and black hair that might have been dyed blond.
According to police, a witness said Aguilar was seen in the Santa Monica area in possession of Civil War photos and a rare Custer family photo album. Anyone with information about Aguilar's whereabouts or the missing Custer album or outstanding Sherman photographs is asked to call Simi Valley police press information officers Lt. Rex Jones or Sgt. Paul Fitzpatrick, at 583-6950. Turner, who deals in 19th century photography and American art, said he was contacted Tuesday by Chapman and agreed to meet him Wednesday. Turner recalled hearing about the theft and to be on the lookout for Trujillo's collection. The likelihood the Sherman photos might be part of the collection registered, he said. In April, Ken Sanders in Utah, who deals in rare books, heard about the theft and posted a newspaper article and other information about the stolen goods on the Internet. Turner couldn't remember the name of the police agency to contact about the theft, but he remembered Sanders and alerted him to the meeting set up on Wednesday. Sanders, in turn, contacted the Custer Museum in Montana, confirmed the theft with owner Chris Kortlander and that the Sherman photos were likely part of the collection. Then he notified Simi police about Turner's planned meeting. Fearing they might not make it to Beverly Hills in time, Simi detectives contacted Beverly Hills detectives, who sent officers to the scene. Chapman was detained and held until Simi police could arrive, said Lt. Mitch McCann, media relations officer with Beverly Hills police.
Late Wednesday, Trujillo was still awaiting word from the police and hoping the recovered photographs were indeed part of his stolen collection. A duffel bag of 28 of the stolen photos was recovered three or four days after the theft behind a warehouse not far from where Trujillo works. The lexicon was also in the bag, but it was ripped up. Ten days ago, three more Sherman photos were recovered at a Simi pool hall, Trujillo said.
"I kind of gave up hope about two weeks ago, figured I would be happy with the 31 I got back," he said. "Now to hear about another 10, that's a real blessing."
Detectives recover Picasso etching stolen from ship a year ago
A Picasso etching that was stolen from a Carnival Cruise ship more than a year ago has been recovered, investigators said Wednesday.
The etching titled "Petite Infante Accroupie et Courtisan" was recovered from a 24-year-old Pensacola man who had been a passenger on the Carnival ship Fantasy during an art auction cruise to the Bahamas in March 2002 when the artwork was stolen, said Agent Patricia Deen, an investigator for the Brevard County Sheriff's Office.
Deen didn't identify the man because he hadn't been arrested. But an arrest was expected within a week, she said.
The 3 1/3-inch by 2 1/3-inch etching was worth $12,400 when it was stolen and has increased in value to $23,500, she said.
The Brevard County Sheriff's Office received a tip last week that the etching was in Pensacola. Deen wouldn't identify who made the tip because the investigation was continuing. Deen went to the Panhandle city and traced the etching to the suspect.
"He thought he would keep it for 10 years until the statute of limitations would run out and he would able to sell it," Deen said. "The problem is he was wrong about that." While on the cruise, the suspect bought or won two pieces of artwork. When no one was looking he took the Picasso etching off the wall and slipped it in a frame behind one of the pieces of artwork, Deen said. "It is in excellent condition," she said.
Reclaiming the Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu
for National Geographic News
May 27, 2003
Where the great sands of the Sahara meet the savannas of North Africa, lies the fabled city of Timbuktu. A mythical destination, Timbuktu is but a mirage of the imagination for most people. But since the 12th century, Timbuktu has been a forbidden place and one of the most august centers of Islamic learning and trade within Muslim society. Yet since the late 1800s, the city's importance had declined, drifting to the sandy edges of the Sahara desert and into the imaginations of the New World's folklore.
Beginning in the 12th century, Timbuktu was becoming one of the great centers of learning in the Islamic world. Scholars and students traveled from as far away as Cairo, Baghdad, and elsewhere in Persia to study from the noted manuscripts found in Timbuktu. Respected scholars who taught in Timbuktu were referred to as ambassadors of peace throughout North Africa. Explorers Wade Davis and Chris Rainier were joined on their quest by journalists from National Geographic Today and National Public Radio's Radio Expeditions program. Tune in to the National Geographic Channel all this week and listen to NPR's Morning Edition, for more stories about this expedition. An integral part of Timbuktu history was always trade—the exchange of salt that came from the heart of the Sahara desert. To this day, camel caravans laden with salt, also known as "the gold of the desert," journey to Timbuktu, in present-day Mali, West Africa, where the salt is sold in the markets of the Niger River towns of Mopti, Djénné, and beyond.
Since the 12th century, accompanying the camel caravans rode the intrepid scholars of Islamic learning, bringing with them over time hundreds of thousands of manuscripts. These bound texts highlighted the great teachings of Islam during the Middle Ages. These sacred manuscripts covered an array of subjects: astronomy, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, judicial law, government, and Islamic conflict resolution. Islamic study during this period of human history, when the intellectual evolution had stalled in the rest of Europe was growing, evolving, and breaking new ground in the fields of science, mathematics, astronomy, law, and philosophy within the Muslim world.
By the 1300s the "Ambassadors of Peace" centered around the University of Timbuktu created roving scholastic campuses and religious schools of learning that traveled between the cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Djénné, helping to serve as a model of peaceful governance throughout an often conflict-riddled tribal region.
At its peak, over 25,000 students attended the University of Timbuktu.
By the beginning of the 1600s with the Moroccan invasions from the north, however, the scholars of Timbuktu began to slowly drift away and study elsewhere. As a result, the city's sacred manuscripts began to fall into disrepair. While Islamic teachings there continued for another 300 years, the biggest decline in scholastic study occurred with the French colonization of present-day Mali in the late 1890s. Today, Timbuktu still holds the allure of its namesake. But clearly it has drifted to the edges of the desert as a dusty adobe outpost that holds defiantly onto the title of being the gateway to the mystical Sahara. Down the sand filled alleyways and into mud homes lie the private collections of the sacred manuscripts that date back over some 600 years. The Ahmed Baba Research Center houses the largest collection. Some scholars estimate that there are over 700,000 manuscripts housed throughout collections in Timbuktu.
With the pressures of poverty, a series of droughts, and a tribal Tureg rebellion in Mali that lasted over ten years, the manuscripts continue to disappear into the black market, where they are illegally sold to private and university collections in Europe and the United States.
However, through the efforts of the Timbuktu Heritage Institute, the manuscripts of Timbuktu are beginning to be re-catalogued, preserved, and protected against theft. Issa Mohammed, president of the Timbuktu Heritage Institute, said: "By stopping the illegal trafficking, not only we are preserving the heritage of Timbuktu, of the Islamic world, and of Africa, but we are preserving a message of love, peace, and living together in a multicultural world."
Today Timbuktu, designated as World Heritage Site by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), lies at a crossroad. Forgotten for centuries to the sands of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu's rich legacy of sacred manuscripts could possess a treasure chest of African history.
USA: Police seek vandals who struck at museum
AUBURN — Crime Stoppers is looking for information regarding vandalism to a plate-glass window at the Auburn Cord Duesenburg Museum.
The window appears to have been shot sometime over the Memorial Day weekend.
This vandalism is consistent with other damage that has been occurring in Auburn within the last couple of weeks.
Crime Stoppers offers up to a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of individuals involved in any crime.
Greece and Canada: Elgin Marbles trip up PM in Greece
By SHAWN McCARTHY and JANE TABER
From Thursday's Globe and Mail
Athens and Ottawa — Prime Minister Jean Chrétien tripped over the Elgin Marbles issue yesterday, not knowing that both the House of Commons and the Senate have adopted motions calling on Britain to return the ancient works of art to Greece.
No help to the Prime Minister, in Athens at the start of an 11-day European visit, was Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham, who also had no clue that on Tuesday the Senate adopted a motion encouraging the United Kingdom to return the sculptures to Greece before the 2004 Athens Olympics. Greek-born Liberal MP John Cannis had proposed a similar motion that was adopted by the House on April 1. At a news conference after Mr. Chrétien met European Union leaders yesterday, a Greek reporter noted the Commons motion and asked Mr. Chrétien whether the Canadian government would lobby Britain to return the treasures in time for the Games.
At a loss, Mr. Chrétien said he was unaware of the resolution.
He turned to Mr. Graham, who said helpfully that the resolution had not passed the Commons.
Mr. Graham added that, regardless of the will of the Commons, the Canadian government would not lobby Britain directly but would urge the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization to investigate.
Later, at a briefing for reporters, red-faced Canadian officials acknowledged that the motion had indeed passed the House.
Still, they indicated that the executive branch of the government had no intention of getting involved in a bilateral dispute between Greece and Britain but would leave it to UNESCO. Greece has been fighting for the return of the panels since 1829. Also known as the Parthenon Marbles, the sculptures were removed from the Parthenon by British ambassador to Constantinople, Lord Elgin, between 1801 and 1810, while Greece was still a part of the Ottoman Empire. They are now housed in the British Museum in London.
The controversy over their location has increased as pressure mounts for their repatriation before the Olympics next year.
Interestingly, Liberal MP Eleni Bakopanos, who is also the acting Speaker, is with the Prime Minister in Athens. She was presiding over the Commons debate when the Elgin Marbles motion was adopted last month.
Liberal Senator Pana Merchant, the first Greek-born woman to be appointed to the Senate, said she sent an e-mail to Ms. Bakopanos yesterday informing her of the adoption of the Senate motion. Ms. Merchant said it's an emotional issue for Greeks.
"For the people of Greece and people of Greek heritage worldwide . . . part of our pride of self is the difference that we made through a contribution 2½ millennia ago, back to the time of Solon and the beginnings of democracy," she said in the Senate earlier this week. "While I am not a government interventionist, we should urge the government of Great Britain to press and urge the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles to the country in which they will be fully cherished. . . ."
Yesterday, Ms. Merchant said she is not really bothered by the Prime Minister's and Foreign Minister's lack of awareness on this issue. However, she wishes "they were aware of it." Mr. Chrétien's European visit will end with the opening of a memorial in Normandy commemmorating the Canadian landing on D-Day.
It seems Mr. Chretien and Mr. Graham were about as well informed as Canadian Alliance MP Jim Abbott was when he debated the Elgin Marbles issue in the Commons last month. At that time, Mr. Abbott admitted that he "assumed we were talking about a small box of marbles that we would play marbles with."
However, Mr. Abbott quickly got himself up to speed, and supported Mr. Cannis's motion.
'Thousands' of items looted insists Iraqi antiquities chief Jordan Times - 28/05/2003
AMMAN — Iraq's antiquities department head Jaber Khalil said here Tuesday that thousands of artefacts were stolen from Iraqi museums, dismissing reports that fewer objects were looted than initially feared.
"There is a deliberate campaign to play down the damage done to Iraq's antiquities," Khalil told AFP on the sidelines of a regional conference on retrieving Iraqi antiquities looted from Baghdad. But Khalil declined to identify who was behind raids into the National Museum in Baghdad and other sites, after Saddam Hussein was deposed last month.
"There are 38 very valuable pieces that were stolen from the Baghdad museum, while objects stolen from its warehouses are in the thousands," Khalil said.
Koichiro Matsuura, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), said on May 19 that hundreds of items were stolen from the Baghdad museum during the war in Iraq rather than the tens of thousands first thought.
And an earlier report by the US military said that many antiquities escaped the looting of the Baghdad museum.
But according to Khalil, valuable items such as statues, bronze objects and others have disappeared.
A UNESCO-led team of international experts last week condemned the "terrible loss" of cultural property in Iraq at the end of a four-day fact-finding mission in Baghdad of key sites looted in the war. "This visit confirms the terrible loss of cultural property in Iraq. It is a disaster, really a disaster," Munir Bouchenaki, assistant director general at the UN's culture agency, told a press conference in Jordan.
According to Khalil, the museum has been able to recover 450 stolen items, which were returned to the antiquities department by a single individual.
"So you see, how can they speak of only hundreds of stolen items?" he asked.
According to Khalil, a media organisation, which he did not name, tipped the museum staff of the existence of the 450 stolen items and helped lead them to their return.
Khalil said he stayed in the museum along with another employee throughout the war and until April 9, when Baghdad fell to US troops. "During the war we took measures to protect the museum and before leaving we sealed off doors to prevent the looting but we could not remove the bigger pieces," he said.
"After the US and British troops entered Baghdad, I went to see a Marines officer and I asked him to help us. He promised to send a military unit but it only arrived four days later," Khalil said. Museum staff are currently making an inventory of the stolen items, using a list of museum pieces that Khalil was able to keep safe during the war, the official said.
But it is "slow and painstaking work because of the lack of proper equipment and insecurity," Khalil said. "This work will need months because there is a lot to do."
Khalil is also using his personal contacts to help recover the objects stolen from the museum.
"I have spoken to Muslim clerics and they have gone out using loudspeakers to address the people in the villages and the towns, urging them to return anything that was stolen," he said.
"We were able to retrieve some pieces but very few," he said. US and British troops are also helping Khalil and his staff by recovering stolen goods and now provide protection for the museum, in addition to giving staff $20 to make up for unpaid salaries. Work was also under way to inventory stolen goods taken from the museum in Mosul that has also been devastated by looters, Khalil said.
Khalil is among several experts from Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq attending a three-day conference in Amman organised by the Morocco-based Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
Global Network Aids Theft of Iraqi Artifacts By EDMUND L. ANDREWS
AFAK, Iraq, May 26 — The meeting took place as planned, in a battered van on the side of the highway. Closing the curtains on the windows facing the road, Khalil quickly got down to business.
Opening a cigarette pack, he extracted a wad of cotton and then unwrapped a small polished stone cylinder engraved with the icons of ancient Mesopotamia: Ishtar, the warrior goddess; Adad, god of weather, and Ea, the god of water.
Next he unwrapped a tiny bronze statue, less than two inches tall, of a person hunched over in prayer. The statue was green and rough with corrosion, but potentially worth many thousands of dollars if it proved as authentic as it appeared.
Out of a black plastic bag came nearly a dozen other ancient artifacts: cuneiform tablets with their writing immaculately preserved, and more cylinders, which ancient leaders used to print their seals on clay tablets.
All of it had been stolen from the vast archaeological sites of southern Iraq. Some pieces, like the black cylinder, were potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everything was on sale now, at prices of $1,500 and up.
"These are just a sample of what I have," said Khalil, who declined to provide his last name. "I have more than a thousand tablets. I have big statues made of stone. Just tell me what you want, and I can show it to you. We need to make another appointment."
Khalil is one of the middle links in a global network of plundering that is rapidly depleting the immense reserves of ancient art and historical data that lie buried in cities that once made up the Babylonian and Sumerian empires.
The looting has been under way on a smaller scale for years, but it has exploded into an orgy of theft in the weeks since American forces toppled the government of Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi police force, which disintegrated at the end of the war, is not only powerless but afraid to stop the heavily armed groups that now prowl over dozens of sites. American soldiers are generally too occupied with reducing street crime and restoring basic services like electricity to pay much attention.
As for the people who live near the big archaeological sites in southern Iraq, they became so poor under Mr. Hussein that they are grasping at any means to make money.
Khalil is one of many local dealers who buy looted treasures and resell them to foreign buyers. Here in southern Iraq, where the largely Shiite Muslim population suffered harshly under Mr. Hussein's rule, a single sale of $2,000 is more than what many people earn in a year.
But experts say the prices demanded by Khalil are a fraction of what those objects can fetch in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Europe and the United States. "This would not be happening if there were not a network of buyers from around the world," said Donny George, director of research at Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Though Iraqi officials say the scale of current archaeological looting is unprecedented, the buying and smuggling networks are well- established.
"The networks go from Iraq to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, or, if you have very good connections, through Jordan," said Joanne Farchakh, an archaeologist and journalist who is based in Beirut and has studied the looting of Iraqi sites for much of the past decade. "Almost everything being sold here has already been seen in Saudi Arabia," she said. "The dealers used to meet each other at the border."
After American forces first entered Baghdad, looters raided Iraq's major museums and its main library, which is a repository for thousands of cuneiform tablets.
But contrary to initial reports in the news media, much of the art stolen from museums was relatively obscure and quickly abandoned by the thieves. As of last week, American and Iraqi investigators had recovered more than 900 pieces.
The looting of archaeological sites, if unchecked, could prove far more devastating. At least a dozen major sites are believed to be under siege, with looters in some locations extracting more in two weeks than archaeologists had unearthed in two decades. Khalil's roadside business suggests how brazen the trade in stolen antiquities has become.
Last Saturday, Khalil, a stocky man who appeared to be in his early 30's, pulled up to a group of foreigners who had stopped briefly on the highway from Diwaniya to Afak. Afak, a small town near a major archaeological site called Isan Bakhriat, is buzzing with both local looters and traders.
Without even investigating to find out the identities of the foreigners, who included a reporter and photographer, Khalil plunged into vivid descriptions of his stock in antiquities.
After a few minutes' discussion, he arranged to meet the foreigners today and show them a small sampling of his cuneiform tablets and other prized artifacts.
The location of the rendezvous remained vague. But when the foreigners returned along the same highway today, Khalil suddenly drove alongside in his van and motioned for them to stop on the shoulder.
No transactions took place. But in the interest of letting the foreigners evaluate his merchandise, Khalil allowed them to photograph his pieces.
Khalil conceded that Jordan and other neighboring countries had begun stringent border searches for anything that might be construed as looted goods from Iraq. But that, he insisted, was no problem. "We can take the goods to either Syria or Jordan ourselves, and you can pick them up there," he said. The financial terms could be worked out once customers made a firm commitment.
"The borders are closed to people like you and me," said Ms. Farchakh, the archaeologist. "But they are no problem for Bedouins who know every small part of the desert."
Khalil knew he would not complete a transaction for thousands of dollars by the side of the road. But his real goal was to entice the foreigners into negotiations over much bigger and much more expensive collections.
Such objects are certainly to be had. Full-sized urns, some packed with cuneiform tablets, are being dug up daily at sites like Isin and Chokha, a site to the south of Afak that Khalil said was his primary source of merchandise.
On Iraqi highways, artifacts for sale
Edmund L. Andrews NYT Thursday, May 29, 2003
AFAK, Iraq The meeting took place as planned, in a battered van on the side of the highway. Closing the curtains on the windows facing the road, Khalil quickly got down to business.
Opening a cigarette pack, he extracted a wad of cotton and then unwrapped a small polished stone cylinder engraved with the icons of ancient Mesopotamia: Ishtar, the warrior goddess; Adad, god of weather, and Ea, god of water.
Out of a black plastic bag came nearly a dozen other ancient artifacts: cuneiform tablets with their writing immaculately preserved, and more cylinders, which ancient leaders used to print their seals on clay tablets. All of it had been stolen from the vast archaeological sites of southern Iraq. Some pieces, like the black cylinder, were potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everything was on sale now, at prices of $1,500 and up.
"These are just a sample of what I have," said Khalil, who declined to provide his last name. "I have more than a thousand tablets. I have big statues made of stone. Just tell me what you want, and I can show it to you. We need to make another appointment." Khalil is one of the middle links in a global network of plundering that is rapidly depleting the immense reserves of ancient art and historical data that lie buried in cities that once made up the Babylonian and Sumerian empires.
The looting has been underway on a smaller scale for years, but it has exploded into an open orgy of theft in the weeks since American forces overturned the government of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi police force, which disintegrated at the end of the war, is not only powerless but afraid to stop the heavily armed groups that now prowl over dozens of sites. American soldiers are generally too occupied with reducing street crime and restoring basic services like electricity to pay much attention.
As for the people who live near the big archaeological sites in southern Iraq, they became so poor under Saddam that they are grasping at any means to make money. Khalil is one of many local dealers who buy looted treasures and resell them to foreign buyers. A single sale of $2,000 is more than what many people earn in a year. Experts say the prices demanded by Khalil are a fraction of what those objects can fetch in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Europe and the United States.
"This would not be happening if there were not a network of buyers from around the world," said Donny George, director of research at Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.
Though Iraqi officials say the scale of current archaeological looting is unprecedented, the buying and smuggling networks are well-established.
"The networks go from Iraq to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, or, if you have very good connections, through Jordan," said Joanne Farchakh, an archaeologist and journalist who is based in Beirut and has studied the looting of Iraqi sites for much of the past decade.
"Almost everything being sold here has already been seen in Saudi Arabia," she said. "The dealers used to meet each other at the border."
After American forces first entered Baghdad, looters raided Iraq's major museums and its main library, which is a repository for thousands of cuneiform tablets.
Contrary to initial news reports, much of the art stolen from museums was relatively obscure and quickly abandoned by the thieves. As of last week, American and Iraqi investigators had recovered more than 900 pieces.
The looting of archaeological sites, if unchecked, could prove far more devastating. At least a dozen major sites are believed to be under siege, with looters in some locations extracting more in two weeks than archaeologists had unearthed in two decades.
Mesopotamia's vanishing treasures
May 29th 2003
Looting at remoter archaeological sites continues relentlessly
SAFEGUARDS, carried out by the coalition and bolstered by local watchmen, have put a stop to the looting of Iraq's priceless archaeological sites. Or so said Pietro Cordone, the suave Italian who has been appointed to look after Iraqi culture, on May 18th. Mr Cordone is not telling the truth.
On May 25th, this correspondent visited the partially excavated site of Umma, one of the world's earliest known city states, in the southern province of Dhiqar. Some 100 looters were visible, many digging on the tell. Others, according to locals, were dotted round the sprawling site. Looting at Umma has now entered its second month.
Before the war, 116 watchmen did a reasonable job of protecting hundreds of sites across the province. Now, they are powerless to prevent the invasion by armed gangs, up to 200-strong, often accompanied by dealers in jewellery and cuneiform seals. Provincial officials know for sure of six important sites that have been looted, or are being looted; the real figure is certainly much higher. Adel Amir al-Hamdani, who oversees monuments across Dhiqar, notes that the remains of palaces and temples, some dating from the third century BC, have been obliterated in the frenzy. Local labourers may have guided gangs to some places, but the looting of unexcavated sites, whose existence is largely unknown, suggests expert collusion.
Iraqi officials accuse Dhiqar's American administrators of indifference to the unfolding catastrophe. On May 23rd, people near Umma saw two American helicopters land, scattering the looters. The pillagers returned 20 minutes later, after the helicopters took off.
Jon Anderson, an American major stationed near the celebrated site of Ur, describes efforts taken during the fighting around Ur's ziggurat, to prevent vandalism “that could have been blamed on the coalition.” A serviceman, caught prising a brick, has been disciplined. If only this vigilance was being extended to Mesopotamia's less visible treasures.