Proposal is to ransom looted Iraqi treasures

Museum officials worry about fate of unique works

April 19, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Museum officials and others alarmed over the fate of thousands of irreplaceable artworks looted from Iraq's national museum in Baghdad say the only hope for recovering the country's cultural patrimony may be by appealing to Iraqi national pride and by offering amnesty and small cash rewards to looters who return stolen objects.

The idea of a no-questions-asked return policy, similar to city gun buy-back programs, was raised earlier this week by the New York-based American Council for Cultural Policy, said Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan, a member of the group. "It's such a desperate situation, the thought was that the closer and sooner you get to what is going on there the more likely you are to be able to repair it."

Vikan said it's possible a combination of "shame, amnesty and a low-end buy-back might yield something interesting."

"If you had a set of playing cards [to distribute] with 52 artworks on them that you want to retrieve, like the cards with wanted Iraqi leaders, it might work," Vikan said. "We'll only know if it's tried."

Vikan said preferably either private philanthropists or a non-U.S. government agency like Interpol, the international police organization, could create a fund to buy back stolen Iraqi artworks. He suggested that the size of the fund might be relatively modest compared to the value of the objects themselves.

"I think $100,000 would go a very long way," Vikan said.

The American Council for Cultural Policy was established last year to help museum professionals, scholars and art collectors research legal and other issues related to collecting, including how to deal with stolen artworks and the disputes over their ownership.

Ashton Hawkins, a founder of the group and former counsel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said yesterday that even token compensation, coupled perhaps with encouragement from Iraqi religious leaders and a general amnesty, could yield significant returns.

"The idea is that it would be a three-pronged approach - pride in the national patrimony and national rebuilding, amnesty and some kind of payment, because usually that helps," Hawkins said.

"There's money available from international sources and I'm sure if this were announced as a priority, people would pledge money to it."

Hawkins said there are a number of historical precedents for such a buy-back program.

After Turkish soldiers plundered Christian antiquities in northern Cyprus in 1974, for example, an American philanthropist, Dominique de Menil, "bought a whole church back for a million dollars and negotiated with Cyprus for them to take ownership," Hawkins said.

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