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Expert Thieves Took Artifacts, UNESCO Says (Post, April 18)
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Looting of Cultural Treasures

With Francis Deblauwe, Ph.D.
Ancient Near Eastern Archaeologist

Monday, April 21, 2003; Noon ET

The National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad was ransacked after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government and 2,000 - 3,000 artifacts were lost, including vases, statues, gold jewelry and clay tablets that are the earliest examples of writing. UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) says well-organized professional thieves stole the artifacts and more than two dozen FBI agents in Iraq will help conduct criminal investigations into the looting.

Independent scholar and ancient Near Eastern archaeologist Francis Deblauwe was online Monday, April 21 at Noon ET, to discuss the significance and importance of the stolen objects and the worldwide coordination effort to restore the museum.

"It's a part of our own western history and the objects and materials in the National Museum in Baghdad bear witness to our own civilization," said Deblauwe in an interview with washingtonpost.com.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Dr. Deblauwe is being delayed. Please stay with us.

washingtonpost.com: Dr. Deblauwe, thank you for being with us today. What is the status right now of the search for the stolen items from the National Museum of Antiquities and if, in fact, the objects have landed in the hands of professional thieves, how realistic is it to believe they'll be confiscated?

Francis Deblauwe: Scholars have convened at a meeting of UNESCO last week and they discussed ways of setting up a data base with all the looted objects from the museum and making it accessible to police forces, art dealers and generally people involved in ancient Near Eastern antiquities which would then allow those people to quickly check whether an object that's maybe brought to their attention is actually looted from the National Museum in Baghdad.

One can always hope, of course, but it is true that the professional thieves of antiquities have a lot of practice. Since the Gulf War in 1991 there has been a lot of organized looting of archaeological sites and collections. The art market in western Europe, especially London, Switzerland as well as the art markets in the U.S. were flooded with these objects. It is to be assumed that the professional thieves that participated in the looting of the museum in Baghdad had planned ahead and set up their routes to smuggle the objects out. There is some evidence that some of the antiquities from the museum have already reached the art market in Europe.

Truro, Mass.: Who is the target market for the ultimate sale of the looted objects?

Francis Deblauwe: For the high value items, basically very rich people for whom money and scruples are no object. These people don't mind possessing an exclusive piece of Mesopotamian art while only being able to see it in their vault. They don't mind not being able to show it publicly and keeping a secret. Lesser value items may be "laundered" through multiple subsequent sales until their origin is obscured and they reach the normal antiquities market.

Burke, Va.: What's your belief on some published reports that the thefts were not just random looting but an "inside job" by people with knowledge of which items were of most value? Who might these "insiders" have been?

Francis Deblauwe: Those rumors came about because the vault of the museum was opened with a key. There was no sign of break-in to the vault. Now there are many ways to interpret this: Some museum people could have been threatened and forced to open it. Or some museum people could have been involved. We don't know. It is true that definitely some of the looters were very organized. They even brought equipment to lift some of the heavier pieces. Also, glass cutters were found of a type that's not readily available in Iraq. There is also some indication that maybe some Baath Party loyalists connected to the Dept. of Antiquities may have been involved in looting the museum even before the highly publicized public looting took place. In other words, they would have moved certain objects out of the museum and now it's not clear where they are anymore ... that maybe some of these Baath Party members may have taken them with them at the start of the war.

Piscataway, N.J.: Were any artifacts from Babylon looted from the museums?

Francis Deblauwe: Almost certainly, yes. I have not seen an extensive, exhaustive list yet; however, as all the most beautiful and most meaningful pieces excavated in Iraq in the last several decades were always deposited in the Baghdad Museum it would be highly likely that objects from Babylon are among the missing.

New York City, N.Y.: Do you think Iraqi cultural artifacts will wind up on eBay?

Francis Deblauwe: eBay has actually announced that they will refuse to put up for auction any items that they suspect were looted from the Baghdad Museum.

Washington, D.C.: Why didn't the Bush administration have a plan for Iraq's antiquities before or during the war? Where they not concerned about Iraq's world heritage sites? I am so angered by what we have lost!

Francis Deblauwe: Basically Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) scholars had meetings with people in the Pentagon and the State Department ahead of the start of the war. The Pentagon was very interested in getting a more extensive list of the important archaeological sites and from what I know so far, the coalition Air Forces did a great job of avoiding bombing archaeological sites and museums.

The weakness of their preparation, however, lay in not planning for the aftermath of liberation. They were told to expect looting of museums as it happened during the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991. But for a reason unknown to me and to my colleagues, they did not follow up on that, even though it would probably have taken only one tank to protect the Baghdad museum.

Central, S.C.: How can we be sure the looting happened after the bombing began? Who's to say that Saddam's henchmen long ago didn't begin squirreling away many priceless antiques in anticipation of what he knew would happen? With his penchant for palaces, this would be in character, don't you agree?

Francis Deblauwe: First, I don't think Saddam Hussein was much of an antiquities lover. Now as I mentioned before, some Baath Party officials could very well have taken some objects at the beginning of the war as they fled in order to sell them then for big money to unscrupulous art dealers. So you may have a point. We will find out eventually.

Secondly, the archaeologists that run the museum had removed the precious and exquisite pieces that are movable before the war started into some vaults of the Central Bank in Baghdad. They did this for very good reasons. They were afraid that the bombing might accidentally hit the museum and destroy everything and they thought that the vaults there would be a safer place.

The status of the vaults at the Central Bank is unclear. From what I can recall, at least part of the building has collapsed and has buried the vaults underneath. There also were rumors that some of the bank vaults were looted.

Rockville, Md: Looting the museums is really horrible but it can't be something that was unexpected. Hopefully, people will return them. I understand there was a museum with Sephardic Torahs in them. What happened to those artifacts?

Francis Deblauwe: I think the Torahs were mostly in the vaults. From what I've been able to ascertain they have not been looted extensively. Most of them seem to be still there.

Carlisle, Pa.: I don't think I have a strong enough sense of what exactly has been lost. Could you give us some idea of what this museum stored? Both in terms of "outstanding" items and what the museum's overall coverage was? (Some museums might in particular focus on one or several areas or periods or types of collections.) Are there other museums that duplicate the holdings of the archaeological museum in Baghdad?

Francis Deblauwe: In Iraq, there is an archaeological museum in each provincial capital. These museums store and archive archive materials from the excavations in their province. The most interesting and the most precious finds are then transferred to the National Museum in Baghdad, which houses the "cream of the crop." The National Museum in Baghdad also houses objects from the excavations of the early 20th Century.

The National Museum also contains the records, notes and field data of the excavations that have taken place since the 1920s. And you must keep in mind that these museums store not just visually pleasing objects but also the many, many ceramic sherds, bones and other more pedestrian archaeological finds.

In the beginning of the 20th Century, the agreement with foreign archaeologists required them to leave 50 percent of their finds in Iraq. Duplicates were often made of the best pieces so that both the Baghdad Museum and the archaeological collections in Europe or the U.S. could be more or less complete. For instance, the Louvre in Paris has a series of originals as well as casts and the same would go then for Baghdad, the other way around.

Germantown, Md.: How difficult will it be for the FBI, Interpol or others to track down the stolen objects?

Francis Deblauwe: As long as we have pictures and descriptions there is at least some chance of recovering objects. However, as most likely the professional thieves made a great effort to destroy catalog information in the museum, many objects could not be easily recognized as coming from the museum even when found by the authorities.

Chicago, Ill.: Now that a few days have passed since the looting and things seem to be quieting down in Baghdad, what's the current thinking as to the magnitude of the loss? Have we begun recovering pieces? Have things that were thought to have been lost or destroyed shown up? Is there any good news to report here, or is this really a calamity of historic proportions? Thanks.

Francis Deblauwe: About 20 looted pieces were returned recently by local people so that is good news. Their imams preached on Friday that it was wrong to steal these archaeological finds and some heeded that warning. We hope more will follow. Of course, these were not the most exquisite, high-money items but to an archaeologist, every piece that is available with its context, with its story, so to speak, is invaluable.

Other good news is that the art dealers of the world have come under tremendous pressure not to turn a blind eye to the origin of the antiquities coming to them from Baghdad. They will be less likely to ignore telltale signs, making it harder to make a profit off the loot.

State College, Pa.: Why would a people trash their own culture? Lost in the recriminations against the U.S. Army's lack of security (Hello? Snipers and Fedayeen were still on the loose!), was the basic fact that the responsibility of the looting lies squarely at the feet of the Iraqis who opened the vaults (a tell-tale sign of an inside job) and smashed display cases (and then blame the U.S. for not saving them from themselves).

What is more important: making sure a water-treatment facility was guarded to provide clean water for Baghdad (after seeing what happened in Basra), or securing a museum that only few had access to under the regime.

Francis Deblauwe: First of all, there's the legal obligation under international law. Occupying power must protect and safeguard cultural sites. Secondly, it is not because some rogue elements in Iraqi society chose to enrich themselves from the museum's holdings that we should not have safeguarded these precious artifacts for all Iraqis and all the people in the world. Especially for us westerners, our own civilization is built upon the beginnings in Mesopotamia. They developed and invented many things we now take for granted. It is there that agriculture first was practiced. It is there that cities first emerged. It is there that we find the first laws. It is there that we find the twenty-four hours of the day and other scientific concepts which then were passed on through the Mediterranean world to the West. So it is also the relics of our own history.

Protecting the museum would have taken very little effort. Protecting the oil ministry took a lot more effort. Considering the fact that many people in Iraq as well as outside Iraq were not totally convinced of the necessity of this war, protecting the oil ministry and not the priceless archaeological museum sends totally the wrong message regarding the priorities of the Bush administration.

Washington, D.C.: You said, "most likely the professional thieves made a great effort to destroy catalog information in the museum, many objects could not be easily recognized". Do you suggest that art collectors worldwide contact their FBI field office either in the United States or one of its many overseas offices for permission to purchase an artifact?

Francis Deblauwe: Under the current circumstances, it is wise not to buy any Mesopotamian artifacts. That is the best way to contribute to the international concerted effort to try to salvage as much as possible of this great collection.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: There is no explanation for the looting of this magnificent museum in Bagdad, founded by Gertrude Bell, and Prince Faisal in the 20s. It was one of the best in the world. Ho do you explain that the American Marines refused to help the authorities of this museum, and answered that they were not there to protect museums, and the National Library. Instead they only focused in the Ministry of Petrol, and the oil industry. I am convinced if the British were there instead the American marines, all this precious legacy of the past would not be ransacked. At least they respect history and culture, not like Mr. Rumsfeld's contempt for all these. Do you have a slightest idea of how much we lost in this ordeal, of the Mesopotamic heritage?

Louis Wetzler von Plankenstern Ph.D., Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Francis Deblauwe: Many people have indeed expressed the opinion that this U.S. administration is too much influenced by business interests and by utilitarian ways of thinking. Considering the public relations debacle that ensued from the looting of the museum, I would think that if they could do it over, they definitely would protect the museum. The fact that they didn't consider this in advance to be an important factor does seem to indicate the narrowness of their horizon. The individual Marines in Baghdad were and are just following orders. Actually, three Marines heeded the call of an Iraqi archaeologist and did intervene once at the museum by shooting over the heads of the looters. The looters left; however, the Marines also left after half an hour and the looters returned.

What this proves to me is that the Marines themselves did understand the gravity of what was going on. However, they had to stick to war tasks, so they could not afford to stay longer less they get in trouble with their superiors. What a pity.

Amman, Jordan: Is the American Army taking the necessary measures to ensure that none of these artifacts are taken away by U.S. military as "souvenirs" from the Iraq conquest?

Francis Deblauwe: The U.S. military is under strict order not to take any "souvenirs." How this will be enforced in practice, I am not familiar with.

Massey, Md.: Are there any plans for an amnesty program for returning artifacts (or any other looted items)? Has something like this worked in the past?

Francis Deblauwe: An amnesty program has never been enacted before as it was thought that this would encourage further looting. However, in this case the ACCP (American Council for Cultural Policy), an umbrella organization of art dealers and art museums, has suggested to even pay small amounts of money to Iraqi people returning looted objects. Most archaeologists are very hesitant to approve this. After all, Iraq is chockful of archaeological remains in tens of thousands of sites all over the country.

Rosslyn, Va.: Do we know why the looters destroyed things they didn't steal? Why smash things?

Francis Deblauwe: From witnesses we know that some looters tried to take big objects and in doing so, tipped them over so they shattered on the ground when they fell. That's one part of the reason. Some of the damage may also be because at least part of the looters were from the poorer quarters of the city where a lot of Shiites live and they may have broken images for fundamentalist, religious reasons also.

Los Angeles, Calif.: Dr. Deblauwe,

Is it possible the plundering of the museum was carried out by Saddam's regime for propaganda purposes to make the USA look bad?

Francis Deblauwe: I find that unlikely.

Bethesda, Md.: Do you know what other art markets in Europe, besides Paris, have been the targets of looted Iraqi objects? Have any looted Iraqi objects been reported on art markets in the U.S.?

Francis Deblauwe: None so far in the U.S. There have been reports that some objects were already offered on the art market in Spain.

Francis Deblauwe: Let me correct myself. In that last question I answered that there had been objects spotted on the art market in Spain. I meant to say Tehran in neighboring Iran.

Washington, D.C.: This may be more of a political question, but how much do people in Iraq identify with Mesopotamian artifacts? Would it be the equivalent of Americans losing copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or do people not connect so deeply with these items of a culture several thousand years old?

Francis Deblauwe: I tend to believe that Iraq is one of the countries where the ties with the past are the most alive after maybe Egypt. It is definitely a fact that all Iraqis learn a lot about their long, rich history and generally are proud of it. Some people say that the Baath Party's abuse of Iraq's ancient history might have turned people away from it -- compromised it. I do not think that is the prevailing sentiment.

Francis Deblauwe: I really appreciate all the questions. They were interesting and to the point. It shows how much people all over the world care about humanity's shared heritage. If you would like to find out more, please be referred to my "2003 Iraq War & Archaeology" Web site where I have links and summaries of many articles as well as a list of relevant Web sites.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company