By MARTIN GOTTLIEB with BARRY MEIER - 05/01/2004
New York Times
LONDON, April 30 — After a rampage of looting of museums in Iraq in the wake of the Persian Gulf war of 1991, American and British archaeologists compiled a list of more than 2,000 stolen objects, a sad catalog of losses to the history of civilization. Eleven years later, experts say, no more than half a dozen of the pieces have been tracked down.
Many others are presumed to have been traded away through a thriving international market in antiquities. The poor record of returning artifacts lost after the gulf war suggests the daunting obstacles that museum officials and police investigators face as they commit to finding items recently sacked from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad and other sites. The plunder from 1991 added fuel to a global industry of scavengers, shippers and traders, who funneled stolen items from Iraq into the hands of private collectors overseas. While reputable dealers and owners insist they work hard to identify and avoid illicit goods, eager buyers continue to demand rare items, and the market flourishes.
"Sometimes we feel we are fighting a war we have already lost," said Manus Brinkman, secretary general of the International Council of Museums in Paris, one of many museum officials engaged in current recovery efforts.
The booty from the National Museum includes invaluable one-of-a-kind treasures as well as thousands of artifacts of everyday ancient life. John Curtis, who heads the British Museum's Near East department, said here Tuesday that paper records and microfilm were strewn about in a way that will take the staff "months if not years to sort out."
Museum curators and law enforcement officials say that the disarray and loss of documents will make it especially difficult to recoup the artifacts. To show that an item has been stolen, experts require papers tracing it to an ancient site or museum. Many Iraqi objects lost in the 1991 looting were removed from sites and understaffed museums that had no careful recording in photographs and catalogs.
"These cases can be a nightmare," said Tony Russell, a former detective sergeant with Scotland Yard's art squad, who is now with the James Mintz Group, an investigative agency. Stolen artifacts often disappear for years before emerging for sale. Other factors add to the difficulties: the ease with which material can slip through customs, the meager numbers of police assigned to art theft, and the circuitous trails of ownership in the world of trading.
More than 10,000 identified archaeological sites in Iraq hold remnants of Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and other seminal cultures dating as far back as 10,000 years. A law adopted in the 1930's in Iraq makes it illegal to remove artifacts from the country without state permission. Archaeologists and dealers say that relatively few ancient pieces came out before the gulf war.
In the waning days of the fighting, 9 of 13 regional museums were ransacked. Experts believe that the early sprees were spontaneous, without participation by professional thieves. Subsequently, a system of organized smuggling developed. Collectors, dealers and law enforcement officials said that they frequently heard that Saddam Hussein's son Uday had a role in the trafficking.
In some areas of the countryside, Saddam Hussein, weakened after his rout by allied troops in the war, ceded some control to local leaders. McGuire Gibson, a professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago, said there were reports that these leaders would accept payments from intermediaries to allow ancient sites to be pillaged, often with small armies of local people digging for little compensation.
From the sites, law enforcement sources said, items often made their way to Amman, Jordan, a major trafficking point with an active bazaar and a few powerful dealers. One dealer named by several people in the trade was Ghassan Rihani, the former head of the Jordanian Antiquities Association. A wealthy Kuwaiti charged in a lawsuit that Mr. Rihani, who died in 2001, had sold items that were stolen from him by Iraqi soldiers during Iraq's 1991 occupation of Kuwait.
Mr. Rihani's son, Tamim, insisted in an interview that his father dealt only in legitimate artifacts.
From Jordan and other regional trade centers in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Syria, the goods often passed through Switzerland. Laws there are more favorable than in many other countries to buyers, who say they bought objects without knowing that they were stolen.
In London, dealers' stalls and showrooms were flooded by the mid-1990's with small tablets dating back 3,500 years or more, inscribed with cuneiform characters portraying daily life.
Before placing an antiquity on the market, dealers often tried to have them authenticated by experts, not to learn where they came from but to guard against fakes. Some archaeologists decline to participate in this verification, saying they are reluctant to assist a market that they believe only encourages smuggling.
One expert who validates authenticity is Wilfred Lambert, emeritus professor of the history of Assyria at the University of Birmingham in England. In a telephone interview, Professor Lambert estimated he had evaluated several hundred items from the region, working for several London dealers. He said that in a marketplace filled with copies and fakes, his role is limited to identifying the age and culture of objects and ascertaining that they are genuine.
Professor Lambert said that he does not offer to verify how an object came on the market. "I don't necessarily know where it comes from or how long it's been coming," he said. The dealers, he continued, "don't themselves, I suspect, very often."
"If I come across something that is clearly stolen I say so," he said, adding it had happened only once.
Today on eBay, the Internet auction site, it is easy to find a dozen or more auctions offering fragments of cuneiform writing and small cylindrical carved stones that were used to make seals, with final prices that don't top $100. EBay recently posted a notice that cautions sellers against trafficking in Iraqi booty.
The Howard Nowes Gallery in New York is typical of dozens of dealers. It advertises Iraqi amulets and cylinder seals for prices in the hundreds of dollars. Mr. Nowes said in an interview that he did not buy ancient items from people who walked in off the street. His Iraqi pieces, he said, came from the collection of a doctor on the East Side. "A dealer has to be very careful, do due diligence if you're in it for the long run," he said.
Mr. Nowes, like most dealers, said he demanded written assurances that items were not stolen and had been in the owner's possession for a substantial period of time. But he admitted there was often little other than good faith for backup.
So far there have been only unconfirmed reports of recently looted objects being offered for sale in the West. Antiquities experts said the most valuable artifacts taken from the Baghdad museum were too well known to be offered publicly for sale. They fear, however, that such items might disappear into obscure private collections far removed from the museum world, or worse, be melted down for their ore.
More commonplace jars, vases and tablets will surely make their way toward the market, authorities predicted. They warned that traders might try to sell in the coming six months, while museums are working to compile a catalog of the newly looted items. In a rare display of unity, dealers are joining with archaeologists and curators to declare they will try to stop any trade in Iraqi objects.
An account of a prominent case in which an artifact was successfully returned to Iraq illustrates how unlikely such episodes are, however. In 1995 Shlomo Moussaieff, a prominent London collector, paid about $15,000 to buy a relief taken from the site of the spectacular seventh-century palace at Nineveh.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Moussaieff said he bought the slab, which shows slaves pulling a boat, in a warehouse in the free port at the airport in Geneva, Switzerland, where much art commerce is conducted. According to court documents, the seller was Nabil Asfar, a well-known Lebanese dealer, apparently based in Brussels.
Mr. Moussaieff took the relief to England and then applied for an export license to ship it to Israel. He sent a picture to the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, to see if curators there wanted to display it, according to newspaper accounts quoting his lawyer. The museum sent the picture for validation to John Malcolm Russell, an expert on Nineveh and now a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art.
Professor Russell said that he was soon shown pictures of two other fragments from the relief. He warned museum authorities that all of them had been stolen since he had seen the slab intact at Nineveh in 1989. English authorities reviewing Mr. Moussaieff's export request contacted experts at the British Museum, who recognized the relief from an article by Professor Russell. Scotland Yard alerted Iraqi authorities.
A suit brought by Iraq was settled when Mr. Moussaieff returned the relief and was reimbursed by the Baghdad government. Mr. Moussaieff maintained that he was unaware the piece had been stolen.
Professor Russell said he still did not know what had happened to the other pieces that he had been asked to examine, nor at least 10 other important stolen pieces he had identified. "They all just disappeared," he said.
Constance Lowenthal, a consultant on art ownership disputes who is based in New York, said that police and customs officials are going to have to study Iraq's extraordinarily rich and long history. "They are going to have to learn to recognize things from all the civilizations of Mesopotamia," she said.