Cultural leaders protest looting

Walters director, others resign from presidential board

April 18, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

The thing that bothers national cultural leaders Martin Sullivan and Gary Vikan most about the looting in Iraq is how little art seems to matter, at least to U.S. military commanders.

"That's probably the worst thing," said Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum.

The pair - along with Richard S. Lanier, director of a New York foundation, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, that deals with relations between the United States and Eastern Europe - resigned Monday from the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property in protest. "The museums weren't even on their radar screen, even though they had been warned. Our military leaders were so good at keeping the oil fields from burning and protecting the bridges and the mosques. They could have done this right, too. They could have stopped the hugest plunder of artistic patrimony in recent memory. That they didn't reflects a failure in our national priorities."

"Antiquity scholars have been pressing the State Department and the Pentagon for many months before the war started to protect these museums," said Sullivan, executive director of Historic St. Mary's City Commission and the former chairman of the advisory commission. "We were assured it would be a top priority."

According to one estimate, more than 150,000 items were stolen from Baghdad's National Museum of Antiquities and other cultural institutions. Many of the objects were taken from the irreplaceable Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian collections that chronicled ancient civilization in Mesopotamia. The loss is valued in the billions.

"The vast majority of the critical early sites of the development of culture and writing all come from a fairly small part of the world," Vikan said.

"It's civilization in general and not Iraq in specific that's documented ... in those collections. To have lost this evidence of our own shared history is something with which we all as human beings have a quarrel."

Although many thefts were haphazard, experts said some burglars clearly knew what they were searching for and where to find it, suggesting they were skilled professionals.

"It looks as if part of the looting was a deliberate, planned action," said McGuire Gibson, a University of Chicago professor and president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad. "They were able to take keys for vaults, and to take out important Mesopotamian materials put in safes."

But Sullivan said the looting still could have been stopped.

"Whether the thefts were professionally planned or opportunistic, even a squadron of soldiers would have been enough to at least chase people out of the place," he said, stressing his disagreement is not with the soldiers, but with the top brass.

Gibson thinks much of the treasure could be recovered by prompt police action.

Facing international criticism and pressure from the art world, the Bush administration is trying to make amends for the loss of the National Museum's artifacts by sending in the FBI.

The bureau is shipping out a contingent of agents from the agency's stolen art department to try to track down the missing artifacts. The agents likely won't be going door to door in Baghdad, officials said, but will head straight for the museum where they will try to piece together from catalog remnants what the museum used to hold.

They will also scour the museum for any documentation - including wall-mounted descriptions and any office notes - of the missing pieces.

In Washington, meanwhile, agents have already begun to monitor Internet auction houses and have made contact with large collectors in hopes that they, too, will keep their eyes out. They've told Interpol and the bureau's foreign legal bureaus to make this a priority.

"Part of the problem so far is that some of the items were taken as part of random looting," one official said, "and some of it was just plain destroyed. It seems some people saw the art as part of the Hussein regime rather than the artifacts that they were."

The Walters will try to keep the looting in the public consciousness, at least here in Baltimore. Curators Regine Schulz and William Noel already are working on a lecture about the theft, which will focus on worldwide efforts to mitigate the loss. (For details, call the Walters at 410-547-9000.)

Their talk will be held on Sunday, May 18 - International Museum Day.

Sun staff writer Laura Sullivan and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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