On the trail of stolen treasures

Outlook bleak for return of Iraqi art

April 16, 2003|By Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It will take months to assess exactly what was destroyed and looted at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, but one thing is sure: The museum, the most important repository of Mesopotamian art in the world, will never be the same.

It's now estimated that at least 100,000 objects are missing or damaged, and experts say much of the booty is probably already working its way through a thriving global black market in antiquities.

After ancient sculptures, gold and silver jewelry and cuneiform tablets disappear in the black hole of illicit trade, experience indicates, they are unlikely to surface any time soon.

Of the 4,000 artworks taken from museums during the Persian Gulf war of 1991 "maybe two" have been recovered, said McGuire Gibson, an archaeologist and authority on Iraqi art at the University of Chicago.

As rumors were flying about where the latest loot had gone, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Monday issued a statement declaring that "objects and documents taken from museums and sites are the property of the Iraqi nation under Iraqi and international law. They are therefore stolen property, whether found in Iraq or other nations. Anyone knowingly possessing or dealing in such objects is committing a crime."

Warning everyone, and Americans in particular, against purchasing or handling the loot, Powell said that the United States would play a leading role in recovering stolen goods and protecting other museums and antiquities throughout Iraq, in cooperation with UNESCO and INTERPOL.

"It's an important step," Patty Gerstenblith, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, said of the statement. "It puts people on notice that those who deal with this material are subject to criminal prosecution."

But stifling a black market with tentacles all around the world may be more difficult than taking control of Baghdad, art experts say.

"There is no legitimate market for these objects," said Sharon Flescher, executive director of New York's nonprofit International Foundation for Art Research, which provides information on legal and ethical issues concerning works of art. "They are subject to every regulation dealing with stolen property - the national Stolen Property Act in the United States and similar laws in other countries."

Officials of major art auction houses say that looted Iraqi material won't turn up in their sales. Objects consigned to auction appear in illustrated catalogs that are distributed to collectors, dealers, scholars, international police forces and the New York-based Art Loss Register, which maintains a database of lost and stolen items, said Matthew Weigman, head of communications at Sotheby's New York.

But thieves have ways of circumventing laws and avoiding public scrutiny. Rumors are rampant that the trade in Iraqi art picked up in Paris before the war began and that some of it traveled through Syria. It's only a matter of time until more Iraqi loot appears in the back rooms of dealers in London, Zurich and other big cities, just like the artistic spoils of the war in Afghanistan, experts say.

Some objects make long journeys with astonishing speed, others snake their way through bazaars of neighboring countries. But whatever the timeline or the itinerary may be, the action begins at home.

"There are people within Iraq who buy this stuff from looters for export, Iraqis who deal with Iraqi antiquities," said attorney John Henry Merryman, a leading authority on art law and ethics who teaches law and art at Stanford University. Every nation that is rich in archaeological sites has a market for antiquities, he said, and Iraq is no different.

A Northern California scholar and collector of Iraqi art who spoke on condition of anonymity said he was contacted surreptitiously before the war and told that Iraqi antiquities would soon become available.

Once an artifact is bought and sold, say art specialists, the only hope of getting it back is to turn up the heat by publicizing the art works by every available means. But that can't be done at the moment.

"To make a database work, you need data," says Anna Kisluk of the Art Loss Register, which lists 128,000 stolen or missing art works. "As information becomes available, we will do what we can." But, she says, her organization depends on the victim institutions for the data on the missing items.

The National Museum had "superb documentation" of its collection, Gibson says, but the documentation has been left in disarray and some of it may have been destroyed. What's more, there has been little interchange between the museum and its foreign counterparts during the past few decades. The only published sources about the collection available to most scholars are catalogs of traveling exhibitions staged many years ago.

Gibson's students are already assembling information from those catalogs. The Archaeological Institute of America is planning to create a Web site of stolen works built from such sources; it will include the names of authorities to contact about the artifacts.

But no matter how many people get involved, it's likely to take months before any clear record of the losses can be pieced together, Gibson says.

Meanwhile, he says, governments must step up the investigation and prosecution of antiquities theft in general. "Everyone winks and pretends that they can't do anything about it. If I can find stolen objects in shops in London and New York and Paris, surely they can. They just don't put the manpower in it."

Suzanne Muchnic writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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