On the Trail of the Iraq Museum's Treasures

R. A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Thu Sep 18 11:00:59 PDT 2003


The Wall Street Journal

September 18, 2003 2:27 a.m. EDT 

On the Trail of the Iraq 
Museum's Treasures 



In mid-April it was widely reported that over 170,000 artifacts had been stolen or looted from the museum in Baghdad. From the outset, the primary goal of this investigation has been the return of these antiquities to the Iraqi people, not criminal prosecution. 

The methodology was tailored accordingly and comprised four components. First was to determine precisely what was missing. Second was to disseminate photographs of those items to the international law enforcement and art communities to aid in interdiction and confiscation. Third was to initiate community outreach with religious and community leaders and enlist their and [the media's] aid in promoting an amnesty policy. And finally, to develop leads in the Baghdad community and then conduct raids based on that information on targeted locations. 

Foremost among the challenges has been to determine precisely what is missing. This is because of the sheer size of the museum's collection, because the museum [contains] not only [cataloged] items, but items from excavation sites throughout the country that have not yet been cataloged, and because of the museum's antiquated manual and incomplete inventory system prior to the war. 

The reality is that after five months [of investigating], we still do not have a complete inventory of precisely what is missing. We can, however, make some findings based on what we know about the inventory today. 

The dissemination of photographs has proven problematic largely because many of the items simply did not have photographs. Or if there were photographs, they were of poor quality or they were destroyed during the looting. Nonetheless, photographs and descriptions have been internationally disseminated -- if not of the actual artifact, at least of a similar or virtually identical item. The goal here was to make the stolen items as recognizable as possible throughout the world. 

The third component has been the amnesty policy. Towards this end, the team has met with local Imams and community leaders, who have assisted this investigation tremendously by communicating the policy throughout Baghdad and Iraq so individuals [could] return items without any fear of retribution. 

Iraqi Perceptions 

To date over 1,700 items have been returned pursuant to the amnesty program, [but] there have been problems here, as well, specifically, the perception among the Iraqi people of the museum staff's identification and association with the former regime and the Ba'ath Party. Time and time again when individuals would turn property over, they would make it clear that they were turning the property over to the U.S. forces for safekeeping until a lawful Iraqi government could be elected. 

Lost. An ivory carving, four inches square and dating from c. 850-750 B.C., of a lion attacking a Nubian. It is one of thousands of objects looted from the museum in Baghdad in April and not yet recovered. 

The raids and seizures have resulted in the recovery of over 900 artifacts. This simply would not have been possible without the overwhelming support received from and the mutual sense of trust developed with the Iraqi people in and around Baghdad. Seizures at checkpoints, airports and international border crossings have proven equally successful, largely as a result of the dissemination of the photographs of the items. So far, over 750 artifacts have been recovered in four different countries. 

Years before [Operation] Iraqi Freedom, most of the gold and jewelry kept at the museum was removed to the Central Bank of Iraq. It was moved in 21 separate boxes. Sixteen of those boxes contained the royal family collection of gold and jewelry, approximately 6,744 pieces, placed in one of the underground vaults of the central bank. A second set of five boxes contained the fabled Treasure of Nimrud and the original golden bull's head from the Golden Harp of Ur. 

The vaults were flooded prior to the team's arrival in Baghdad, but we pumped out the water -- [it] took three weeks -- and ultimately [we] were able to gain entry into the vaults. And in a moment that can only be characterized as sheer joy, we opened each of those boxes and found the treasure of Nimrud completely intact. 

Months before the war, the staff moved all of the manuscripts from the museum in 337 boxes, totaling 39,453 manuscripts, parchment, vellum and the like, to a bomb shelter in western Baghdad. On April 28, we located that bomb shelter and began to arrange for the return of those items to the museum. 

The members of the community, when we went there, grew concerned about returning those items to the museum, again, because of the identification with the Ba'ath Party. And they asked us to allow them, as a matter of honor, to keep those items in the bomb shelter, with their promise that they would provide a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week neighborhood community watch. We agreed and, to this day, those items are safely kept in that bomb shelter under the watchful protection of that community watch. 

Weeks before the war, the staff moved 179 boxes containing 8,366 of the more priceless artifacts from the display cases in the museum itself. They moved those items to a secret place, and you will recall that on May 16, when I last spoke to you [the Pentagon press corps via video from Baghdad], we had not learned the location of this secret place, because the five senior museum staff members had sworn on the Koran not to reveal its location. 

After weeks and months of developing and building a trust with the museum staff, we were able to gain access to the secret place on June 4. And when we did, we found that all 179 boxes were present and all of their contents accounted for. 

As for the looting itself, on April 8 the last of the staff left the museum. U.S. forces then became engaged in intense combat with Iraqi forces that fought from the museum grounds and from a nearby Special Republican Guard compound. It was during this period that the looting took place, ending by April 12 when some staff returned. 

Turning now to the losses, it must be stressed that the loss of a single piece of mankind's shared history is a tragedy. It is equally clear that numbers cannot possibly tell the whole story. Nor should they be the sole determinant used to assess the extent of either the damage done or the recovery achieved. For example, it is simply impossible to quantify the loss of the world's first known Sumerian mask of a female deity; it's irreplaceable. On the other hand, each single bead, pin and pottery shard would also count as a separate number. But it is abundantly clear that the original number of 170,000 missing artifacts was simply wrong. 

This is what we found: In the administrative area, all of the offices were ransacked. We saw the same level of destruction in the administrative offices that we saw in presidential palaces and buildings identified with the former regime throughout Iraq. 

Found. A recently recovered, life-size Sumerian female head from c. 3100 B.C. Wary of the Ba'athists, Iraqis have been returning looted items to U.S. forces until a lawful government is elected. 

Turning to the public galleries, however, [we didn't] see anywhere near that level of destruction. The staff, as I mentioned, had previously emptied all of the display cases. So, of the 451 display cases, only 28 of them were damaged. All of them had been emptied. Those items that were too large to be moved by the museum staff were covered with foam padding and laid on their sides in order to prevent any damage. 

>From the galleries themselves, 40 pieces were stolen, most notably the famous Bassetki Statue from approximately 2300 B.C., and the Roman heads of Poseidon, Apollo, Nike and Eros. 

Of the original 40 missing items, 10 have been recovered, including the Sacred Vase of Warka, an exquisite white limestone votive vase dating from approximately 3200 B.C. and arguably the most significant piece possessed by the museum. While it was damaged during the looting, it should be noted that when the vase was returned on June 11, it was in exactly the same condition as when it was recovered by German archaeologists at al Samawa in 1940 and subsequently restored. 

Also recovered during the investigation is one of the oldest known bronze relief bulls, and my favorite, two pottery jars from the 6th millennium B.C. from Tell Hassuna. 

Unfortunately, 30 exhibits from the main gallery, irreplaceable pieces, are still missing from the museum. Another 16 pieces were damaged, most notably, the Golden Harp of Ur, although its golden bull's head, as I mentioned, had previously been removed. 

Turning to the Heritage Room, consisting of more recent scrolls and Islamic antique furniture and fine porcelain, 236 pieces were originally stolen. We've recovered 164. 

Turning to the restoration and registration rooms, which were temporary storage areas, we found 199 pieces originally missing, of which we've recovered 118. 

The museum also, in additional to the public galleries themselves, had eight storage rooms. Of the eight, only five were entered, and only three had anything missing. These rooms contain tens of thousands of clay pots, pottery shards, copper and bronze weapons, tools [and] statuettes. 

We can make several findings, based on what we know now. The first- and second-level storage rooms were looted but show no signs of [forced] entry on their shared exterior doors. Two thousand, seven hundred and three excavation site pieces -- jars, vessels, pottery shards, statuettes and the like -- were stolen [from those rooms], of which 2,449 have been recovered. 

Evidence of a Firing Position 

It was in the second-floor storage room [that] the investigation discovered evidence of a firing position at a window -- one of two that affords a clear field of fire onto the street that runs along the western side of the museum. Although we also found boxes of RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] throughout the museum, the investigation has uncovered no evidence that any fighters entered the museum before the staff left on April 8 and no evidence that any member of the staff assisted Iraqi forces in entering the museum or in building the various fighting positions found inside and surrounding the museum. 

Turning to the basement-level storage room, on the other hand, the evidence here strongly suggests not random looters, as [elsewhere], but rather thieves with an intimate knowledge of the museum and its storage procedures. 

It is here, in the basement magazine, that they attempted to steal the most trafficable and easily transportable items stored in the most remote corner of the most remote room in the basement of the museum. The front door of this basement room was intact and unforced, but its bricked rear doorway, accessed only through a remote, narrow and hidden stairwell, was broken and entered. This storage area actually has four rooms, three of which, containing tens of thousands of priceless pieces, were simply not touched. 

However, the fourth room was also virtually untouched, except for one remote corner where 103 small plastic boxes originally containing cylinder seals, loose beads, amulets, small glass bottles and jewelry had been emptied, while hundreds and hundreds of surrounding larger, but empty, cardboard boxes were completely untouched. The thieves here had keys. Not the missing keys that were previously in the museum director's safe, but a separate set of keys that was used by the museum as a safety procedure. They were hidden elsewhere in the museum. That hiding place was known to only several people in the museum. Whoever did this had those keys. 

These keys were to 30 storage cabinets that lined that particular corner of the room. Those cabinets contained arguably the world's finest collection of absolutely exquisite cylinder seals and the world's finest collection of Greek, Roman, Islamic and Arabic gold and silver coins. 

Ironically, the thieves here appeared to have lost the keys to those cabinets by dropping them in one of the [now empty] plastic boxes that lined the floor. There was no electricity in the museum during this period; so the thieves lit the foam padding for light. After frantically and unsuccessfully searching for the keys in the fire-lit room, breathing in the noxious fumes from the foam and throwing those boxes in every direction, they were unable to find the keys and gain access to the storage cabinets. 

We ultimately found the keys under the debris after a methodical, fully lit and hours-long search. Upon inspecting those cabinets, and opening each one with absolutely bated breath, we learned that not a single cabinet had been entered and a catastrophic loss [was] narrowly averted. 

However, the contents of [those 103] plastic boxes were taken by the thieves. While not of the same caliber as those items stored in the cabinets, they were nonetheless still valuable. All together, from those boxes, there were 4,997 [p]ins, beads, amulets and pendants, and 4,795 cylinder seals. An additional 545 smaller pottery pieces and bronze weapons from the shelves were also taken. So, from this room alone, 10,337 pieces were stolen, of which 667 have been recovered. 

>From this room we also recovered a set of readable fingerprints. Those fingerprints were sent to the FBI lab for comparison against all known databases, to include all U.S. military forces. There are no matches in the U.S. databases for those fingerprints. Members of the staff who had immediate access to that storage room were also fingerprinted and compared against those prints, and there are also no matches. Those prints remain on file for future use. 

Three Kinds of Thieves 

Thus, the evidence suggests three dynamics at work [in the theft]. In the public galleries, the thieves appear to have been professionals, stealing the more valuable items, bypassing copies and less valuable items. In the storage rooms on the first and second floors, the pattern [suggests] indiscriminate and random looters. In the basement, however, it is simply inconceivable that this area was found, breached and entered or that the keys were found by anyone who did not have an intimate insider's knowledge of the museum. 

Turning to the recovery efforts, several factors bear noting. Three thousand, four hundred eleven items have been recovered. Of those, about half, 1,731, have come from Iraqi citizens pursuant to the amnesty policy. 

The remaining 1,679 items have been recovered as the result of sound law enforcement techniques, from raids in Baghdad, to random car stops at checkpoints throughout Iraq, to increased vigilance at international borders. Altogether, 911 pieces have been recovered in Iraq, while another 768 have come from numerous seizures in Jordan, Italy, the U.K. and the U.S. Most recently and publicly, on Aug. 12 a journalist was arrested for smuggling into the U.S., at JFK, three cylinder seals stolen from the museum. 

In total, the number of artifacts now known to be missing from the museum stands at slightly over 10,000. The majority of the work remaining -- that of tracking down each of the missing pieces -- will likely take years. It will require the cooperative and concerted efforts of all nations, to include their legislatures, their law enforcement officers and their art communities. [These objects] are indeed the property of the Iraqi people, but, in a very real sense, they are the shared property of mankind. I speak for all when I say we are honored to have served. 

Col. Bogdanos, a Marine reservist, led the investigation into the looting of the Iraq National Museum. Prior to being called up on Sept. 11, 2001, he was a homicide prosecutor in the New York City District Attorney's office. He has a law degree and a master's degree in classical studies from Columbia University. This is a condensed transcript of a briefing he gave last week. The complete text is available at www.defenselink.mil/transcripts 1.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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