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Museums try to keep stolen Iraq antiquities off market

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

From the University of Pennsylvania to the United Nations, organizations are scrambling to discern what objects have been stolen from Iraqi museums and how they can be returned before reaching the black market.

This cast copper head is among the relics missing from the Iraq National Museum. It is believed to depict Naram-Sin, grandson of Sargon, the founder of the dynasty of Agade and one of the world's first prototype dictators. The copper head was found near the Ishtar Temple at Nineveh. It was mutilated, with its nose, ears and beard chopped off, much like the statues of Saddam Hussein torn down in Baghdad. (University of Southern California)

The focus of many art experts is on recovering artifacts stolen from museums in Baghdad, Mosul and other cities. But they are also criticizing U.S. military leaders for failing to heed warnings of potential looting of museums and excavation sites and to provide effective protection against mobs.

One of the museums looted was the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, one of the most important repositories of Mesopotamian art in the world.

"All the roots of Western civilization are there. We all trace our way back there. It's supposed to be where the Garden of Eden was, for God's sake," said Gustavo Araoz, director of the U.S. Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites in Washington, D.C.

Tomorrow, 30 international art experts will gather at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- to discuss what immediate measures can be taken to retrieve the stolen treasures.

After that, according to UNESCO, experts will be sent to Iraq to evaluate the capacity of Iraqi authorities to rehabilitate the museums and to identify their most urgent needs.

Richard Zettler, an associate curator of Near East art at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Art and Archaeology, said any plan to retrieve stolen artifacts "is going to be a very complicated operation."

He and other art experts mentioned a few options available to UNESCO, the U.S. interim government and Iraqi authorities:

Strengthen border patrols to keep antiquities from leaving Iraq.

Call on governments worldwide to ban trade in Iraqi antiquities.

Grant amnesty to Iraqis who return looted antiquities.

Offer monetary rewards to Iraqis who return looted antiquities.

"I know it sounds horrible to pay people who stole things, but it's better than seeing those things melted down," said Zettler, who will be attending another conference on these issues in London on April 29.

Philipe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, told Fox News on Monday that he is urging UNESCO to create an amnesty fund to pay looters, although it's not clear where the money would come from.

If there is no compensation, de Montebello said, the thieves "will take the objects that point to them as looters and destroy them, rather than give themselves in. So amnesty and compensation are absolutely critical."

Edward Able, director of the American Association of Museums, said that even though many countries want to help in the art recovery effort, Iraqis must be included in any decision-making.

"We need to see what their needs and priorities are," Able said. "Our first priority is to get someone on the ground in Iraq and do that survey."

Able met with State Department officials yesterday in Washington but declined to provide specifics about the meeting.

Clemens Reichel, a professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, is not optimistic about recovering the artifacts.

"Let's lower the expectations right away," he said. "We are only going to recover a fraction of what was stolen. This stuff is so hot that it won't show up on the legal antiquities market. Don't expect it to show up at Christie's or Sotheby's."

In Munich, Zurich, London and Scandinavia, Reichel added, "There are enough illegal trade networks where things change hands relatively secretly. There are dealers in Europe and in the states that will deal with this kind of material."

William Pearlstein, a lawyer for the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art, said legitimate American dealers and collectors have no interest in seeing the looted artifacts on the market. The association will be helping to put the missing art on databases that can be checked by dealers.

"It's clear these objects are stolen," Pearlstein said. "Anyone who knowingly handles them, knowing their background, is subject to criminal prosecution."

Kevin Pursglove, a spokesman for eBay, the Internet auction site, said it's possible items could make their way to eBay. Employees at eBay cannot evaluate each item posted on the site, which has 62 million registered users worldwide, he said.

"If an item like this appears on eBay and we are approached by the authorities, then we would remove the item from auction," hesaid.

More than 150,000 objects were housed at the National Museum, including some of the oldest examples of human writing and a 5,000-year-old vase from the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham according to the Bible. Everything that was excavated in Iraq since 1967 and half of what was excavated there between 1920 and 1967 was in the museum.

According to Jeremy Sabloff, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Art and Archaeology, recovery difficulties will be exacerbated because the bulk of the objects kept at the National Museum weren't well catalogued or photographed.

Zettler, who visited the museum many times in the late 1970s when he was researching his dissertation, fondly remembered a solid gold bull's head on a lyre -- an object that he heard had been taken by looters.

An Iraqi man reads papers at the entrance to the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad on Saturday. Looters opened the vault and went on a rampage, breaking some ancient artifacts stored there by museum authorities before the war started and stealing priceless antiquities. (Jerome Delay, Associated Press)

"It was deeply saddening," Zettler said of video footage of the wrecked museum.

In addition to the National Museum, the Baghdad Library was burned and many of Iraq's smaller, regional museums, as well as Baghdad's natural history museum, also were ransacked.

"The outpouring of concern and complete sorrow in the U.S. museum community has been enormous," Able said. "My e-mail and answering machine have been deluged with calls."

Some archaeologists sharply criticized the military's failure to protect the museums.

McGuire Gibson, a professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago, said that colleagues had heard from Iraqi antiquities officials who had reported that no military guards were posted yesterday at the National Museum in Baghdad.

"The museum has been ransacked, and nothing has been done to make it safe and secure," Gibson told The New York Times in a telephone interview from Chicago. "The mob will come back."

Others declined to speculate on why American soldiers did not protect the museums or why Iraqi museum officials didn't better protect their collections.

"Who knows what could have been done," Pearlstein said. "Now we just have to pick up the pieces -- literally."

Staff writer Marylynne Pitz and The New York Times contributed to this report. Caroline Abels can be reached at cabels@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2614.

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