looted artifacts were displayed in May 2003 at Iraq's
National Museum, two months after they had disappeared
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 the world 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.
organizations worldwide are allegedly chasing the lost
items, but their representatives claimed there is no
systematic coordination, and they are relying on a
shifting set of ad hoc partnerships to bring the thieves
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 international
laws 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, Parthian and Sasanian 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
The danger was obvious. The
land what is today known as Iraq, prior to its Arab migration
was the birthplace of civilization, where ancient peoples
left behind a cornucopia of cultural heritage at thousands
of sites over thousands of years. The Sumerians,
Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians empires lived there, and Ctesiphon,
the imperial capital of Parthian and Sasanian dynasties
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.
And so it proved. As U.S.
tanks entered Baghdad in April, mobs broke into the
National Museum and stole, burned or destroyed everything
they could find. It was not as bad as expected because
staff members had spirited most of the famous exhibits out
of the museum to secret hiding places. But it was bad
No one has disputed Bogdanos's figures on museum losses,
but he cautioned that the numbers of both missing and
recovered pieces will rise as the staff continues to
inventory pillaged storerooms.
Outside the capital,
looting of known archaeological sites has proceeded
unimpeded, and there is no end in sight as long as
overburdened U.S. and Iraqi security forces remain
preoccupied with battling insurgents.
"When Saddam found looters, he killed them,"
said Bogdanos, a reservist who works as a Manhattan
prosecutor in civilian life and who has recounted his
experiences in a new book, "Thieves of Baghdad."
"We told the Iraqis right away that we weren't going
to fly helicopters over the sites and start shooting
Bogdanos has compiled the accepted "top 40" list
of the most famous pieces stolen from the National Museum.
Fifteen have been recovered, including the Sumerian vase
of Warka, the mask of Warka and an Assyrian wheeled
firebox made of bronze. The Akkadian Bassetki statue, of a
boy cast in copper, was found in November 2003 at the
bottom of a Baghdad cesspool.
The 25 missing items include Bahrani's Sumerian statue,
the gold-and-ivory carved plaque of a lioness attacking a
Nubian, and the almost life-size Parthian head of the
Goddess of Victory, from Hatra, made of copper.
"You're never going to see these in a gallery,"
Bahrani said. "No art dealer would ever touch them,
because they're just too well known. We're talking about a
black market. These pieces will never see the light of
The second category includes about 8,000 small items taken
from the museum basement in what Bogdanos calls
"clearly an inside job." Thieves with keys
"cherry-picked" obscure storerooms for pendants,
amulets, decorative pins and about 5,000 distinctively
Mesopotamian "cylinder seals."
These carved finger-sized pieces of stone leave a
distinctive design when rolled over soft clay. Each has a
museum number written on it in nearly indelible India ink,
and the whole collection, Bogdanos said, would fit in a
These are the most saleable of all the stolen items --
easy to hide and transport, distinctive and authenticated
as museum pieces. Most of the high-profile items recovered
outside Iraq are cylinder seals, including eight that were
voluntarily handed over to the FBI by a returning Marine
and three taken by customs agents from journalist Joseph
Braude at New York's John F. Kennedy International
Airport. Bogdanos, lead investigator in the Braude case,
was disappointed by the sentence of six months of house
arrest and two years of probation.
Since Bogdanos departed Iraq, U.S. forces no longer have a
systematic way to search for artifacts, and the effort has
devolved upon an assortment of organizations, including,
among many others, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities
and Heritage, Interpol, the FBI and cylinder-seal experts
at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.
"There is no coordination," Bogdanos said.
"It's based on personal relationships, and when it
works, it's a surprise."
At the moment there is little evidence that anyone in the
United States or Europe is taking advantage.
Still, there appears to be no disagreement that looting
continues. Until recently, what little evidence there was
came from risky field trips by journalists, military
reports from the Iraqi hinterland and the occasional
Stony Brook University archaeologist Elizabeth Stone,
however, has been leading an effort to compare
"before and after" satellite photographs of
well-known sites in southern Iraq, and has found holes
"denser than Swiss cheese."
The artifacts recovered from these sites are a grab bag
that includes some cylinder seals, pottery, clay tablets,
stone carvings and other small items. But a lot of it is
probably valuable. Where is it going?
Stone claimed that somewhere "there are warehouses
bulging at the seams," waiting for vigilance to relax
and laws to expire. Pearlstein thinks the artifacts are
traveling to "virtually unregulated" markets in
the Persian Gulf states.
Nonetheless, it is U.S.
troops, journalists and contractors returning from Iraq
are among those who have been caught with forbidden
souvenirs -- mostly paintings and small seals and
cylinders that can be carved exquisitely and hidden
However, most probably the
looted artifacts have found their way into U.S. and
European markets, without raising any suspicion.