Clues hint art thieves looted Iraq museum with inside help

Robbers knew its vaults, took most valuable items

War In Iraq

April 20, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- More evidence has surfaced that the looting of the National Museum was carried out in part by professional art thieves who used chaos as cover to make off with artifacts sought by private collectors, museum officials said.

The officials said financiers from countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Jordan have been paying people since the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991 to smuggle specific items from the sites of archaeological digs around the country.

They are part of a shadowy network that officials in the art world say primarily sells stolen works to wealthy private collectors.

"That is our biggest fear," said Dr. Donny George, the director of research studies at the museum. "That these things that were stolen will go to private collectors and we will never see them again."

He said new signs had emerged in recent days that expert thieves were involved in the looting that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. They passed by a copy of a piece called the Code of Hammurabi because they knew the copy was not worth very much, he said.

George said the museum had prepared for the war by moving many items into underground vaults, but many of those vaults had been broken into. It appeared, he said, that the thieves knew their way around the vaults.

As the city begins to calm down and as experts assess the damage to the museum, officials said they had discovered some interesting clues.

One official showed a reporter the identity cards of some employees who he said were involved in looting. He also showed a set of keys that he said were used.

The nature of the robbery, he said, suggested that outsiders had enlisted low-level museum employees to help them.

At a news conference, Dr. Jaber Khalil, chairman of the state board of antiquities, displayed some tools that were used in the robbery, including picks, hammers and chisels -- not the kind of equipment common in the neighborhood around the museum.

Two items in particular seem to have been singled out.

One item was the Sacred Vase of Warka, dating from the Sumerian period, around 3200 B.C. The vase was discovered by German archaeologists in the 1940s near the city of Samawa.

Its detailed carvings tell one of the earliest stories about religion. Near the bottom of the vase is a carving representing water, followed by plants, then animals, then priests and finally, at the top, figures representing deities.

The second item was an ancient brass relief of the Akkadian ruler, King Naram-Sin, one of the earliest examples of an advanced form of bronze casting.

Although some of the thieves seem to have been professionals, there were others who did random damage, smashing ancient statues or overturning cabinets with documents representing around 100 years of research.

But the professionals seem to have made off with the most valuable material, George said. In the past 12 years, he said, the country has been scavenged by similar crimes on a smaller scale.

"We know that in the '90s, there were those who were encouraged from outside people sitting in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to go to specific sites," he said. "A lot of Iraqis were encouraged to dig in remote parts of the country and smuggle the material."

No major financiers have been arrested, he said, but there have been several large-scale arrests of people trying to smuggle goods.

George worked at a site near Nasiriyah about 10 years ago. "It was so looted it looked like a lunar landscape," he said.

Sometimes gunbattles were necessary to protect the site.

"I, myself, carried a Kalashnikov," he said.

Iraqis across the country have criticized the American military for not protecting museums and historical sites.

"Why did the American forces protect the Ministry of Oil and not the Iraqi antiquities?" asked Khalil, voicing a commonly expressed opinion.

Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz of the 3rd Infantry Division, whose unit is now protecting the museum, said that when they first entered the city they did not even know the museum was there because it was not in their "zone of responsibility."

However, when his men took fire from Iraqi forces positioned around the museum, he said they had to isolate it and kill the enemy, so it was impossible to guard it as well.

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