Sunday, July 13, 2008

BBC Report on Exaggerated Looting of Iraq Museum

This showed up on list serves yesterday, though Donnie George and Patty Gerstenblith have indicated on the IraqCrisis List that this is recycled news.

In any event, the item does suggest that the story of the looting of the museum was exaggerated. Just recently (and as reported on this blog), the Art Newspaper also suggested that stories about looting of archaeological sites were also exaggerated. Does anyone see a pattern here?:

Priceless Treasures Saved From Looters of Baghdad Museum

It is known as one of the worst episodes of the war in Iraq: one of the world's greatest archaeological collections ransacked while American troops stood by, unable or unwilling to act. But now a different picture is emerging of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad. Only a few dozen significant pieces, not thousands as originally reported, were stolen. And many, a new investigation has found, may have gone missing long before the Americans arrived in the Iraqi capital.

US officials revealed yesterday that several of the most important pieces that were thought to have been stolen have now turned up safe. The world-famous treasure of Nimrud, an extraordinary series of priceless 4,500-year-old gold artifacts, has been found in a flooded vault under the Iraqi National Bank. Other key parts of the museum's collection, including tens of thousands of Greek and Roman gold and silver coins, have been found in strongrooms in the Baghdad museum itself. Staff there now say that only 33 major items and around 2,000 minor works have gone.

'The treasure was never lost,' Salman Faleh, the governor of the central bank, said yesterday. 'We knew all along that they were there. It just took a bit of time to get at them because of the flooding.'

US customs agents who helped with the recovery of the treasure said that when they first entered the vaults they found bodies of looters killed in shoot-outs with rival gangs. But the seals on the crates of treasure proved to be intact.

The truth about what happened at the museum will be revealed in a documentary, to be broadcast tonight on BBC2, by Dan Cruickshank, the architectural historian. Cruickshank, who visited Iraq shortly before the war, returned in the aftermath of the conflict. 'It is simply not true that the people of Baghdad looted their own museum,' Cruickshank told The Observer last week. 'They have far too much respect for their own heritage to do that.'

Instead, Cruickshank said the only buildings ransacked were the administration offices of the museum. Most of the senior officials running the museum were, as throughout all of Saddam Hussein's system of government, members of the Baath Party, Saddam's political vehicle. The museum itself was seen by many locals as part of the structure of the regime and attacked as a result.

But though damage was done to files and research work, most of the museum's collection escaped unscathed, Cruickshank said. The empty shelves in the museum's galleries were thought by the first journalists on the scene to have been stripped by looters. In fact, the collection had been carefully stored according to a plan drawn up d uring the Iran-Iraq war. Thousands of pieces were hidden in five secure rooms around the museum, in vaults in the central bank and in bunkers around Baghdad.

There is evidence of possible collusion between museum officials and thieves in the run-up to the war. 'The museum staff all say they locked up the museum and fled on 8 April and all deny having the keys to the strongrooms around the building where much of the most precious stuff was being stored,' said Cruickshank. 'But it is clear that at least one of the five storerooms was unlocked at some stage. Of course, no one admits opening it.' There are also suspicions that some of the best artifacts that are missing had been stolen and sold several years ago. Senior figures in the Baath Party regime, such as Saddam's eldest son Uday, are known to have made millions from the international trade in antiquities. Some American and European specialists believe that most of the 33 missing items were taken in the first few hours of the collapse of Saddam's regime and were stolen 'to order'.

Professor McGuire Gibson, an Oriental specialist from Chicago University and a member of the Unesco team investigating the thefts, said he had received reports that the 'top five' items among the 33 had been smuggled to Tehran and Paris within days of their removal.

The misplaced focus on the supposed looting of the Baghdad museum has meant that problems in much of the rest of the country are being ignored. Cruickshank spent two weeks in Iraq and found US soldiers and officials are focusing on restoring law, order and basic utilities in Iraq and have little resources to spare to protect archaeological sites.

Dan Cruickshank and the Raiders of the Lost Art is on BBC2 this evening at 9pm
Guardian Unlimited © Copyright Guardian Newspapers 2008Published: 7/11/2008


Voz Earl said...

So according to Donny George the number of items stolen from the museum was 15,000 rather than 33. But I wonder whether that number includes the many items which were reportedly returned--both from the locals immediately following the looting and from Jordan and Syria in recent days.

In any case, 15,000 is far less than the 170,000 initially reported and in no way justifies the sort of emotional claims which were made by the archaeological community at the time the looting occurred, i.e. that the loss was comparable to the Mongol invasion or the burning of the library of Alexandria--claims which are patently ridiculous. This is the fact which gets no acknowledgement from the cultural property activists who continue to play up the Baghdad Museum incident as some sort of cultural holocaust (see SAFE's propaganda video - 2007 Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum.)

Without question some archaeological sites in Iraq have been damaged--the question is how many sites and to what extent? Given that the evidence of damage is largely anecdotal at this point, it is hard to take the apocalyptic appraisals of the situation at face value when they come from the same group of people who "cried wolf" the first time around--some of whom seem to be deliberately whipping up hysteria as a means of furthering their anti-collecting agenda.

One thing is for certain, if all these sites are being looted for antiquities, they aren't showing up in Western markets in any quantity. Contrary to the insinuations of Paul Barford, even at the lower end of the market (eBay) I see an actual decrease in the number of Mesopotamian "knick-knacks" for sale. Prior to the Iraq war there were many more cuneiform tablets available for sale on eBay--now there are hardly any. And all those dedication cones inscribed with something about "...Ningursu's shining bird..." which were all over the place--gone. If the sites in Iraq are undergoing massive looting, either the looters are not finding much or the goods aren't being sold in the West.

Voz Earl

Cultural Property Observer said...

In an "off list" email, Dr. George was kind enough to explain to me that the 15,000 figure was derived from IM numbers and it did include some subparts of larger artifacts (the example I gave him was individual necklace beads), but he also indicates that most of the time, only the whole artifacts were counted.

Obviously, Dr. George took issue with the substance of this report as well. His comments should be accessible on the IraqCristis List.

With respect to Voz's comments about the lack of Iraqi material Western marketplaces, I recall a front page Washington Post article about that some time ago.

I concur with Voz that obviously there was some looting at the Iraq Museum. The issue is whether or not it has been exaggerated. Ad hominem attacks like that on David Gill’s “Looting Matters” blog should not obscure that basic issue. Despite Gill’s claims, there have been other reports suggesting the story of the looting of the Iraq Museum was exaggerated and, indeed, as Voz explains, the initial figures were revised downwards in a dramatic fashion.

The true facts of exactly who looted the museum (and when) will likely never be known. At the time, Col. Bogdanos focused his attention on recovering objects rather than interrogating staff members who might have shed light on the issue. He details this in his book.

Cultural Property Observer said...

For whatever reason, David Gill on his blog "Looting Matter" is complaining that I failed to acknowledge this was an old story. I sent him the following two comments for his two posts. As of now, he has failed to post either. I post them here as a default. You can draw your own conclusions about his intellectual honesty:



For a second time, I would again request that you provide a direct link to my blog if you are going to comment on it:

I will also direct your attention to the very first sentence of that blog entry:

"This showed up on list serves yesterday, though Donnie George and Patty Gerstenblith have indicated on the IraqCrisis List that this is recycled news."

Enough said.


Peter Tompa



I believe your mean-spirited blog first presented a misleading picture of what I stated on my own blog and then did me the additional discourtesy of not even providing a link to my post.

Please do so now:

Please let your readers judge what I said as they read your comments about it.


Peter Tompa