US government implicated in planned theft of Iraqi artistic treasures
4/23/03 8:40:18 PM Pacific Daylight Time
I sat on this one for 3 days, waiting for google to cough up a url for
it, which it finally did tonight. The copy I received originally had no
identifying information with it. ~~ goldi
US government implicated in planned theft of Iraqi artistic treasures
By Ann Talbot
19 April 2003
As the full extent of the looting of Iraqâs National Museum in Baghdad
emerges, it becomes clear that there was nothing accidental about it.
Rather it was the result of a long planned project to plunder the
artistic and historical treasures that are held in the museums of Iraq.
Had the National Museum of Iraq been looted by poor slum dwellers it
would have been crime enough, and the responsibility would have rested
with the American administration that refused, despite repeated
warnings, to provide for the security of Baghdadâs cultural buildings.
Once the museum staff were able to communicate with the outside world,
however, it became apparent that the looting was not random. It was the
work of people who knew what they were looking for and came specially
equipped for the job.
Dr. Dony George, head of the Baghdad Museum, said, âI believe they were
people who knew what they wanted. They had passed by the gypsum copy of
the Black Obelisk. This means that they must have been specialists. They
did not touch those copies.â
Speaking on Britainâs Channel 4 News, he told Dr. John Curtis of the
British Museum that among the artifacts that have been stolen are the
sacred vase of Warka, a 5,000-year-old golden vessel found at Ur, an
Akkadian statue base, and an Assyrian statue. It was, said Dr. Curtis,
âLike stealing the Mona Lisa.â
It was only almost a week after the museum was originally looted that
Dr. George was able to alert archaeologists worldwide to what had been
stolen. The American military authorities had made no effort to prevent
the objects leaving Baghdad or to put in process an international search
for the stolen artifacts.
The US reluctance to act cannot be explained by any lack of warning.
Professional archaeologists and art historians had told the Pentagon of
the danger of looting beforehand. Dr. Irving Finkel of the British
Museum told Channel 4 that the looting was âentirely predictable and
could easily have been stopped.â
The museum was the victim of a carefully planned assault. The thieves
who took the most valuable material came prepared with equipment to lift
the heaviest objects, which the staff could not move from the galleries,
and had keys to the vaults where the most valuable items were stored.
Not since the Nazis systematically stripped the museums of Europe has
such a crime been committed.
The US online publication of BusinessWeek magazine reiterated the theme
of premeditation and conspiracy in the looting of Iraqâs museums in an
April 17 article headlined âWere Baghdadâs Antiquity Thieves Ready?â The
article carries the subtitle: âThey may have known just what they were
looking for because dealers ordered the most important pieces well in
BusinessWeek writes: âIt was almost as if the perpetrators were waiting
for Baghdad to fall to make their move. Gil J. Stein, a professor of
archaeology at the University of Chicago, which has been conducting digs
in Iraq for 80 years, believes that dealers ordered the most important
pieces well in advance. âThey were looking for very specific artifacts,â
he says. âThey knew where to look.ââ
Since the last Gulf War in 1991 Iraqi antiquities have flooded onto the
market from the museums that were looted then and from archaeological
sites that have been attacked with bulldozers. At such locations ancient
statues have been sawed apart so they could be exported.
This plundering of Iraqâs cultural heritage has only whetted the
appetite of collectors who are already responsible for looting Far
Eastern, Latin American and Italian archaeological sites. With the
collapse of global stock markets, works of art and antiquities have come
to be regarded even more highly as a secure investment, fuelling an
already huge underground market.
The illegal trade in antiquities is thought to be as lucrative as drugs
trafficking, to which it is often linked. According to a report by the
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, âThe Trade in illicit
Antiquities: the Destruction of the Worldâs Archaeological Heritage,â
produced in 2001, London and New York are the main markets for this
trade. Switzerland, which allows an art work that has been in the
country for five years to be granted a legal title, is a key
Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, director of the McDonald Institute
at Cambridge, told a press conference at the reportâs launch that the
trade continued because âThe government is in the pocket of the art
market, which wants to keep the flow of antiquities.â He added, âItâs a
As news of the latest looting broke, the Labour government of British
Prime Minister Tony Blair organised a hasty press conference in the
British Museum, at which Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell promised
official support to protect Iraqi antiquities.
Even as she spoke, the National Library of Iraq was being looted. Home
to rare, centuries-old illuminated copies of the Koran and other
examples of Islamic calligraphy, as well as irreplaceable historical
documents from the Ottoman Empire, the building was set on fire,
destroying an untold number of texts.
Reporter Robert Fisk, who saw the flames, ran to get US marines in an
attempt to save some of the collection, but they refused to help. Fisk
wrote in the Independent, âI gave the map location, the precise name in
Arabic and English. I said the smoke could be seen from three miles away
and it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later,
there wasnât an American at the scene and the flames were shooting 200
feet into the air.â
After the fate of Baghdad museum, it can only be concluded that the
generalised looting and arson at the library served to cover up a more
systematic crime, in which select manuscripts were stolen for wealthy
collectors. In the process they connived in the burning of books-another
The role of the ACCP
In the aftermath of these two devastating attacks on culture, attention
has focused on the activities of the American Council for Cultural
Policy. Even the British press that works under some of the toughest
libel laws in the world has been willing to suggest that the ACCP may
have influenced US government policy on Iraqi cultural artifacts.
The ACCP was formed in 2001 by a group of wealthy art collectors to
lobby against the Cultural Property Implementation Act, which attempts
to regulate the art market and stop the flow of stolen goods into the
US. It has defended New York art dealer Frederick Schultz, who was
convicted under the National Stolen Property Act, and opposes the use of
the 1977 US v. McClain decision as a legal precedent in cases concerning
the handling of stolen art objects.
In the McClain case a US judge accepted that all pre-Columbian art or
jewellery brought into the US without the express consent of the Mexican
government was stolen property. Mexican law regards all archaeological
artifacts as state property and bans their export. Mexico is one of a
number of countries that has such legislation.
Ashton Hawkins, a leading art lawyer and founder of the ACCP, regards
such legislation as âretentionistâ. He has condemned the
archaeologically rich âsourceâ countries for attempting to protect their
archaeological sites and museums by such measures, and has argued that
under the Clinton administration such âretentionistâ policies came to
dominate US government policy.
Hawkins has his sights set on the great Middle Eastern museums. He has
called for the Egyptian antiquities that are held in the Cairo Museum to
be dispersed. âI would like to propose,â he said, âthat the Cairo Museum
offer museums around the world the opportunity to acquire up to 50
objects for their collections. In return, the museums would make a very
substantial contribution for the construction of the new museum under
the Giza plateau-$1 million each, for example.â
The ACCPâs inaugural meeting took place at the Fifth Avenue apartment of
Guido Goldman, a collector of Uzbek textiles. Among those present were
Arthur Houghton, the former curator of the Getty Museum at Malibu in
California, which is notorious for displaying works of suspicious
provenance. Hawkins himself retired in 2000 as vice president of the
trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an institution
that, according to its own former director, Thomas Hoving, holds many
artifacts looted from Etruscan tombs.
Before the war began, the ACCP met with Pentagon officials, declaring
their great concern for Iraqi antiquities. What that concern means is
evident from the remarks of William Pearlstein, the groupâs treasurer,
who also describes Iraqi laws on antiquities as âretentionistâ. The ACCP
deny that they want Iraqi laws changed, but the looting of the museum
and library will effectively circumvent that problem if US law on stolen
art objects and archaeological material can be changed.
Professor John Merryman of Stanford Law School and a member of the ACCP
has called for a âselective international enforcement of export
controlsâ in US courts. In other words, it should be perfectly
legitimate to import the objects looted from Baghdad if a US court
chooses not to recognise Iraqi legislation.
Merryman set out the organisationâs principles in a 1998 paper in which
he argued that the fact that an art object had been stolen did not in
itself bar it from lawful importation into the US.
He went on to claim, âThe existence of a market preserves cultural
objects that might otherwise be destroyed or neglected by providing them
with a market value. In an open, legitimate trade cultural objects can
move to the people and institutions that value them most and are
therefore most likely to care for themâ ( International Law and
Politics, vol. 31: 1).
This is a self-justifying argument that reeks of hypocrisy. Wealthy
collectors can now point to the chaos on the streets of Baghdad, the
looting of the museum and the burning of the library as evidence that
the Iraqis are unable or unwilling-too poor or too ignorant-to look
after their treasures, which would be better housed in American museums
or private collections.
The ACCPâs ideas represent the interests of particularly rapacious
sections of the US ruling class, who operate on the principle that
everything-even an object of priceless artistic or scientific value-is
defined by its âmarket valueâ.
What they mean is price, since the real value of the objects stolen from
the Museum of Baghdad and the Iraqi National Library is incalculable.
These are quite literally people who understand the price of everything
and the value of nothing.
The prescription for the market to determine possession of and access to
works of art and archaeological material would place these artifacts in
the hands of a rich minority and make public access to them depend on
the good will of their wealthy owners. Despite the fact that many of the
ACCP members have been associated with major public institutions, their
agenda is profoundly opposed to the public dissemination of art and
archaeology. They are not only trying to change the law in other
countries, but are working against the most progressive traditions of
American society, which has always prized its public museums.
A scientific tradition
The development of public museums went hand in hand with the development
of a scientific understanding of archaeological artifacts and the
societies that produced them. Publicly funded museums represented a
break with the tradition of private treasure hunting. Their exhibits
aimed to display the material artifacts of the past in a rational and
The accumulation of archaeological artifacts in private hands tends to
disrupt scientific work, since material becomes scattered, is difficult
to catalogue and much of it remains unknown to scholars working in the
field. Public museums are public not only in their funding and because
they open their galleries to visitors, but in the sense that they make
knowledge available to all-something that has been recognised as a
primary requisite of the scientific process since the scientific
revolution of the seventeenth century.
One of the effects of the looting of the Baghdad museum has been to
destroy the card catalogue and computer records of the museumâs
holdings. This has not only made tracking down its treasures more
difficult, but has also undermined generations of patient archaeological
work. To destroy such a catalogue is, both in a symbolic and practical
sense, to make a collection private, because its contents become unknown
to the outside world.
While the major objects are well known internationally, a museumâs
records goes far beyond these spectacular works of art. It includes all
the minor finds of archaeological excavations that, in themselves, are
not eye-catching, but when studied together produce a picture of a
society that cannot be gained from its art alone.
Archaeologists spend their time sifting the detritus of past
civilisations, often literally. They may sieve tons of earth looking for
beetle wing cases or seeds. Cess pits and rubbish heaps produce a wealth
of knowledge. What is thrown away and discarded provides a context for
the relics of great temples and palaces, or royal tombs.
Petr Charvatâs recent book Mesopotamia before History  contains
lovingly photographed images of pieces of mud impressed with rush
matting. This is not the stuff to grace a collectorâs cabinet, but
reveals vital information about the craft skills and way of life of
A blow to world scholarship
The Baghdad museum was more than a place to display artifacts. All
excavations carried out in Iraq by international teams of archaeologists
were reported to it. The museum therefore possessed a database of
knowledge that was accessible to researchers internationally, and was
the hub of a vast cooperative endeavour. Its looting and the destruction
of its records are a blow to world scholarship. It threatens to turn the
clock back more than 150 years to the period before scientific
archaeology in Mesopotamia.
Early excavations were by modern standards unscientific, as excavators
were still learning their discipline by a process of trial and error.
One of the most elementary lessons of that learning process was that
context is everything in archaeology. An artifact can only tell its full
story if its context is known.
By context, an archaeologist means the physical position of an artifact
in the ground, its relationship to other artifacts and to the layers of
earth around it. From this information it is possible to determine an
artifactâs relative date and considerable information about its
practical use and social significance. Ripped out of this context, it
loses much of its meaning. Even the finest work of art can be better
appreciated when its context and the social conditions of its creators
In its widest sense, understanding an artifactâs context means
understanding its relationship to the entire archaeological site at
which it was found, to other sites round about it, and to the historic
landscape in which it belongs. While national feelings are often evoked
to justify keeping archaeological artifacts in their country of origin,
the more important scientific reason for doing so is that the context of
the artifact is preserved by keeping it close to where it was found.
It is still possible to see in modern Iraq houses built by similar
methods to those employed by ancient builders and to see boats built to
similar designs. The full significance of Mesopotamian artifacts can
only be appreciated by seeing them in the context of the extraordinary
landscape of modern Iraq-a country where every hill that rises above the
plain has been built up from layers of mud brick representing
generations of occupation.
The American colonial administrator, retired general Jay Garner, tried
to co-opt the emotional impact of that landscape for his own political
purposes by holding his big tent meeting within view of the
4,000-year-old ziggurat of Ur, which was the temple platform for the
moon god Nanna. But by allowing the museum of Baghdad to be looted, the
US authorities have shown they have no regard for the real importance of
Iraq to human history.
When the medieval European cartographers who drew the thirteenth century
Hereford map of the world set out to represent the planet on which they
lived, they put Asia at the top because to them it was the most
important continent. There lay the lands of the Bible. Jerusalem was at
the very centre of their world view, and beyond it lay Babylon, the
scene of the Jewish captivity, the Tower of Babel and Abrahamâs home in
the city of Ur.
So deeply impressed on the European mind was the Biblical image of the
world that the first excavators of ancient sites in this region were
looking for confirmation of the Bible. Even in the twentieth century,
Leonard Woolley referred to his excavations at Warka by the Biblical
name of Ur of the Chaldees.
Yet the material that came out the excavations carried out by Woolley,
and others such as Layard, Botta and Hormuzd Rassam, shook the Biblical
view of the world. Not the least important discovery was that familiar
Bible stories such as Noah and the Flood had their origin in Mesopotamia
long before the Bible was written. As the cuneiform writing of thousands
of clay tablets was deciphered, it was realised that numerous complex
and highly developed civilisations had existed in Mesopotamia of an
antiquity never before guessed.
The full extent of this history only became apparent as the technique of
Carbon 14 dating and other scientific methods were refined. Only in the
second half of the twentieth century was it realised that settled
farming could be traced back to the mid-eleventh millennium BC in the
The cradle of civilization
The earliest farming communities do not occur in the area that is
present-day Iraq, but in the better watered highlands of the Zagros
Mountains, Anatolia, the Levant and the Deh Luran Plain. Nevertheless,
Iraq was the centre of the second phase of the protracted Neolithic
Revolution that began with the domestication of animals and cereal
In Iraq that revolution went a significant step further with the
development of irrigation, a technique that vastly increased
agricultural productivity. The surplus produced by irrigation allowed
the first urban civilisation on the planet to emerge in the very region
that the combined military forces of the US and the UK are reducing to a
By 5800 BC, small farming communities were appearing along the
Euphrates. Within a few centuries they had coalesced into dense urban
settlements, each of several thousand people centred on a temple which
was largely responsible for managing the irrigation system, distributing
food, and importing stone, minerals and timber from the neighbouring
Over two millennia these Mesopotamian cities developed the art of copper
smelting, alloying bronze and, most importantly, writing. Writing was
essential to the administration of cities that depended on a largely
artificial ecosystem created by irrigation, and which needed to import
even the most vital raw materials.
Writing enabled a dramatic intellectual development to take place. What
began as a method of recording stores and deliveries became a medium for
writing poetry, stories and history. Science and mathematics flourished.
Modern research has revealed evidence of multiplication tables, tables
of reciprocals, squares, square roots, cubes and logarithms to bases 2
and 16. Other texts show volumes and areas, linear and quadratic
equations. Babylonian mathematicians calculated the value of pi to
3.125, close to its true value. Astronomy was highly developed and if it
was understood in terms of omens and prophecy, its predictions of
eclipses and the movement of the planets were nonetheless accurate.
The social and political structure of Mesopotamian society cannot be
traced directly from its material remains, and archaeologists differ
about its character and the course of its development, but Petr Charvat
finds in Mesopotamian society to 3000 BC that âin all spheres of society
the principle of universality and equality comes to the fore ... the
material standard of living is equalised by redistribution ... people
meet in assemblies to discuss and decide matters of common interest....
All receive the same treatment in life and deathâ ( Mesopotamia Before
History, pp. 158-59).
From 3000 BC there is some evidence of social stratification and the
emergence of a political elite or ruling class in the âroyal burialsâ of
Ur, but some archaeologists dispute this characterisation of those
In this period two great civilisations emerge: in the south of
present-day Iraq is the Sumerian civilization, and in the north the
Akkadian, which are both based on a collection of city states that
preserve many of the cultural traditions of the earlier period. Not
until 2334 BC does the first empire appear under the rule of Sargon of
Agade, who unites these two confederations.
Sargonâs short-lived empire was replaced by that of Ur Nammu in 2112 BC.
The thousands of clay tablets that survive from this period testify to
the careful management of resources that kept this empire alive until
1990 BC, when it was replaced by the Babylonian empire, which reached
its high point under Hammurabi in 1792 BC.
The mid-fourteenth century BC saw the rise of the first Assyrian empire.
The Assyrians were to dominate Mesopotamia again, and the whole region
from the Gulf to the Mediterranean in the ninth century BC. In 612 BC
the Babylonian empire was established. It most outstanding ruler,
Nebuchadnezzar, built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the double walls
of the city, the great ziggurat and the processional way. He was
responsible for sacking Jerusalem and taking many of the Jews into
This succession of empires and the Persian empire that followed were
sustained by the immense productivity of the irrigation system and the
complex system of administration that maintained it. The sophisticated
concepts that had been developed in the process fed into the
intellectual systems of later societies. Even the Greeks, from whom we
derive the name for the land between the rivers, stood in awe of
One of the ministries that has been systematically destroyed in the
recent days of looting is the Ministry of Irrigation. We might say that
by this act the US administration seeks to drive Iraq back to the dark
ages, except that Iraq has never known a dark age in the sense that
Europe has. Empires might rise and fall, but as long as the irrigation
system continued to function the land between the rivers could produce
more food than it needed. By attacking the irrigation system, the US
administration is causing more damage in a few weeks than any other
Iraqâs cultural significance did not end with the close of the Persian
empire. Throughout the European dark ages it remained a haven of
learning, preserving under the Caliphs of Baghdad classical texts lost
in the West. Islamic scholarship was to prove vital to the re-emergence
of Aristotelian philosophy in thirteenth century Europe and to the
The full extent of the losses in this respect will only become apparent
when the looting at the National Library is itemised. That account is
yet to come.
What is already clear is that a great crime has been committed against
not only the Iraqi people, but against the whole of humanity, since it
is the history of humanity that has been attacked. For this reason the
sack of Baghdad marks a significant point on the trajectory of the Bush
administration as it attempts to plunge the world into a new barbarism
that would outstrip anything that history can show from the past.
1. Petr Charvát, Mesopotamia before History, Routledge, 2002.
2. Brian M. Fagan, People of the Earth, Prentice Hall, 2001.
3. Michael Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia, Equinox books, 1990
The sacking of Iraq's museums: US wages war against culture and history
[16 April 2003]
How and why the US encouraged looting in Iraq
[15 April 2003]
The Sacking Of Iraq´s Museums - US Wages War Against Culture And History US accused of PLANS TO LOOT Iraqi antiques Experts:Looters Had Keys to Iraqi Vaults CNN Paraphrase Chicago Oriental Inst.: There was a tank guarding the Iraq museum but then it disappeared. FORUM Former counsel to the Metropolitan, Ashton Hawkins, is rallying support to challenge legislation intended to limit the trade in antiquities Trustees of the Dia Center threatened to withhold donations unless longtime chairman Ashton Hawkins, who is also vice president and counsel to the trustees for the Metropolitan, agreed to step down Ashton Hawkins represents at least five institutions (he has also represented the Neue Galerie, New Yorks new museum for early 20th-century German and Austrian art) and a growing number of private clients who are concerned about the legal risks in owning anything from paintings to Greek bronzes. Hawkins & Lord Rothschild at Elite Bash honoring World Bank Group president James Wolfensohn. The organization attracts a preponderance of philanthropists and very rich individuals, many of whom are great collectors of art of all kinds.