Looted Iraqi Relics Slow To Surface

These looted artifacts were displayed in May 2003 at Iraq's National Museum, two months after they had disappeared.
These looted artifacts were displayed in May 2003 at Iraq's National Museum, two months after they had disappeared. (By Murad Sezer -- Associated Press)
By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 8, 2005

More than 2 1/2 years after looters sacked Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities and police forces throughout the world are still searching for thousands of stolen items, including a handful of the most famous artifacts in history.

U.S. military sources say forces in Iraq have no systematic way of investigating the missing objects, and in the ongoing insurgency neither U.S. nor Iraqi forces can justify using scarce manpower to guard sites in the countryside, where widespread looting has continued unchecked since the March 2003 U.S. invasion.

Law enforcement organizations worldwide are chasing the lost items, but their representatives said there is no systematic coordination, and they are relying on a shifting set of ad hoc partnerships to bring the thieves to account.

Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, charged with recovering the museum treasures in the six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, eventually counted about 14,000 lost items, of which about 5,500 have been recovered.

Perhaps not surprisingly, only a few high-quality looted pieces have reappeared since the end of 2003. Yet paradoxically, although lower-end artifacts occasionally are placed for auction on the Internet, there has been no serious upsurge in public sales of Iraqi antiquities, either in the United States or Europe.

Experts attribute the absence of a market to a combination of factors, none of them verifiable. Tough laws in Britain and the United States may have scared off known dealers, some say, or smugglers may simply have stashed their prizes in warehouses until they think it is safe.

Others suggest that it takes a few years for stolen goods to migrate from the Middle East to shops in London, Tokyo or New York. Still others suspect the loot has gone to collectors in nearby states along the Persian Gulf, where Mesopotamian artifacts enjoy a stature they never attained in the West.

Most sources agree, however, that the most famous pieces are too hot ever to be handled again in public. Without sophisticated police work, help from the art world and patience, the only people who will ever see them are the millionaires who buy them on the black market and lock them away.

"I teach about it all the time," said Columbia University art historian Zainab Bahrani, recalling the missing Sumerian black statue of Eannatum, prince of Lagash, one of the earliest royal sculptures to bear an inscription. "I explain why it is important, but in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'It's gone . . . it's gone.' "

Bahrani is one of a relatively small number of specialists in academia, the art world and law enforcement who continue to track the fortunes of Iraq's stolen patrimony.

The danger was obvious. Iraq is the birthplace of civilization, where ancient peoples left behind a cornucopia of cultural heritage at thousands of sites over thousands of years. The patriarch Abraham lived in what is today Iraq, and Imam Ali, the founder of Shiite Islam, was martyred there.

Two months before the 2003 invasion, a small group of experts warned Pentagon officials about the possibility of looting once the shooting stopped. It had happened in the chaos after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and U.S. forces could expect the same this time, they said.

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