The Washington Post

October 3, 2004

Stop, Thieves! Recovering Iraq’s Looted Treasures

By Roger Atwood

Sunday Outlook; Page B02

Last August, an author from Rhode Island named Joseph Braude became the first person to be convicted in connection with the looting of Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities. Braude, whose book, “The New Iraq” is, ironically enough, about rebuilding the country, had been caught trying to bring three 4,000-year-old stone seals into the United States. An alert customs inspector at New York’s Kennedy airport had found the stolen goods in Braude’s luggage.

As a smuggler, Braude was pretty amateurish. He had bought the pieces from a street vendor in Baghdad, didn’t bother to scrape off the tiny letters “I.M.” (for Iraqi museum), and then foolishly denied to the inspector that he had been in Iraq. He is due to be sentenced later this month.

A small victory, perhaps, but Braude’s conviction shows how international action to stop the flow of stolen antiquities can produce real results — and not just in U.S. courts. At a symposium in Turkey in June, Iraq’s new general director of museums, Donny George, revealed some startling figures: Coordinated efforts by governments and law enforcement agencies in the 16 months after the looting of the Baghdad museum had resulted in the recovery in six countries of at least 5,200 pieces out of roughly 13,000 stolen. That’s a good start and, more importantly, it puts unscrupulous antiquities dealers on notice that stolen Iraqi artifacts are subject to seizure and are therefore unmarketable — today, tomorrow and forever.

Thirteen thousand artifacts is far fewer, of course, than the 170,000 mistakenly reported missing in the days following Saddam Hussein’s downfall. The confusion developed when Western journalists arrived at the trashed museum and were shocked to find the shelves empty. The staff, it later emerged, had sensibly moved most of the artifacts into storage vaults before the fighting started — a fact that distraught curators failed to explain. While those 13,000 artifacts hardly compare with the burning of the ancient library of Alexandria, as early reports claimed, they represent a huge loss for any museum, and especially one that holds the richest trove of Mesopotamian artifacts in the world. They are the products of some of the most important work ever done in archaeology.

Out of this disaster has come a palpable change in the way national governments and police deal with the illegal trade in cultural property. Governments that once looked the other way or responded with bureaucratic half-measures have been shamed into taking a swifter, more pro-active approach. Within weeks, they took the kinds of actions that in the past took years — tightening border controls, circulating photographs of specific pieces, training police to recognize suspect pieces when they see them.

With the exception of Kuwait and Iran, which have demonstrated striking indifference to helping Iraqis recover their national treasures, governments have adopted the kinds of measures that advocates of cultural patrimony have been urging for years — and they got results. Italy has confiscated on its soil more than 300 pieces looted from the Baghdad museum. Syria has confiscated 200. In Iraq itself, more than 3,000 objects have been seized or voluntarily returned to the museum. Authorities in Jordan, which has worked the hardest among Iraq’s neighbors to prevent itself from being used as a transshipment point, had seized an extraordinary 1,054 pieces by June.

In the United States, about 600 antiquities known or strongly suspected to have been stolen from the Baghdad museum have been confiscated or voluntarily relinquished, nearly all of them at airports, according to George. This rich haul of stolen goods — including several clay tablets inscribed with the world’s oldest form of writing, cuneiform — would never have happened if federal authorities had not circulated images and descriptions of Iraqi treasures to all U.S. ports of entry. It was one of those bulletins — a one-page flier — that led that inspector to recognize Braude’s little seals.

As for the museum’s most famous stolen treasures, photos of them appeared on the Internet within days of the looting. They became impossible to sell, and few seem to have made it out of Iraq. The celebrated 3rd millennium B.C. sculpture known as the Lady of Warka, one of the earliest known realistic portrayals of a woman, was returned to the museum after it had circulated among at least five would-be Iraqi sellers. The last of them, frustrated at his inability to find a buyer, buried it in an orchard, where it was retrieved after American investigators received a tip-off.

The most important changes, though, are more long-term. Switzerland, for example, a notorious shoppers’ mart for looted antiquities, finally ratified last October the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property, the treaty that remains the backbone of global efforts to combat the trade in plundered goods. (The United States ratified the treaty in 1983.) Two months later, Britain enacted legislation that, for the first time, made it a crime to buy or sell illegally excavated or removed antiquities in that country, whatever the origin. Officials in both countries had talked about these changes for years, but “the Baghdad disaster provided the impetus” to making them a reality, said Patty Gerstenblith, an expert on cultural property law at DePaul University in Chicago.

No matter how many stolen museum pieces are recovered, an even more urgent task is stopping the relentless pillage of archaeological sites inside Iraq. Every ancient site I saw in Iraq last year was under assault. At the biblical city of Nimrud, I saw where professional looters had chiseled out carvings decorating the imposing stone walls of the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II. Those pieces have disappeared, sold into the illicit antiquities market and presumably now sitting in some collector’s living room.

Reports suggest the pillage has since grown much worse. The buried remains of the 4,000-year-old Sumerian city of Isin have been turned upside down by hundreds of illegal diggers. With security as chaotic as it is in Iraq, it is unrealistic to expect coalition troops to guard all these remote ancient sites against looters. All we can hope is that the continued seizures of stolen artifacts will start to cool looting. At least 60 Iraqi antiquities that were not in the museum’s collection already have been confiscated from travelers at U.S. airports, according to George.

Congress can help. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has introduced legislation that would empower the president to slap a five-year ban on the import of any antiquities removed from Iraq since 1990. Designed to prevent looted treasures from being laundered through the United States, the bill would show everyone — dealers, collectors, auction houses, casual buyers — that Iraqi artifacts are hot and will remain hot for the foreseeable future. Buyers cannot simply wait for the storm to blow over.

If mass lootings can’t be prevented, at least the Iraqi disaster has shown us how we can catch the birds once they have flown the cage.

Roger Atwood is the author of “Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World,” to be published next month by St. Martin’s Press.