Stolen artifacts finding way into the world's art markets

At least two objects were seized by Customs at the U.S. border

Postwar Iraq

April 22, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Stolen art and artifacts looted from Iraq's museums have begun to move on worldwide markets, U.S. law enforcement officials said yesterday, and at least two pieces of art believed to have been stolen have been stopped by the Customs Service at the U.S. border.

One of the two pieces - apparently a painting - was seized by Customs after a cursory investigation revealed "suspicious circumstances," and Mesopotamian art specialists deemed it likely stolen, one law enforcement official said. The second piece, and possibly others, are under examination by U.S. officials.

Authorities at the Customs Service declined to comment on the investigation.

Additionally, the FBI's stolen art department has begun to pick up information from contacts in an elite group of international buyers and sellers specializing in Mesopotamian, Asian and Middle Eastern art.

Lynn Chaffinch, manager of the FBI's art theft program, who is leading the bureau's efforts to help recover the art, said that several contacts have reported hearing about priceless items being transported across Middle Eastern countries - likely headed for the United States, Europe and Japan where the money and buyers are.

Specialists say they believe that more than 50 percent of stolen art worldwide winds up in the United States.

Chaffinch and art theft experts from Interpol are eager for approval from the Defense Department to send investigators into Baghdad to begin the laborious process of cataloging missing items. Most of the museum's records were destroyed in the looting.

Without a catalog of items, law enforcement agents and art dealers worldwide will not know exactly what to look for. And unless a theft is documented, Chaffinch said, officials can do little to recover an object once it's in the United States.

"We can't say, that's Sumerian, or that's suspicious, and take it," Chaffinch said, speaking to a small group of reporters. "If I can't match it to a theft report, I can't make a recovery. That's why we're trying to move as fast as we can right now."

The Customs Service can seize items whose paperwork appears false. Even without compelling evidence of illegality, Customs can temporarily hold items to resolve questions.

Iraq's secrecy and isolation in recent decades have proved damaging to the recovery efforts. Iraqi leaders seldom allowed academics and experts into its museums to catalog their collections, as most museums do. Most libraries here and abroad, for example, have access to databases of the Smithsonian's collections.

Chaffinch, as well as many art authorities and law enforcement officials, say that while vandals probably played a role, professional art thieves were likely responsible for most of the museums' losses. Destroying a museum's catalogs, identification cards and research papers are a tell-tale sign of thieves who do not want stolen items to be tracked.

"It's a major, major loss to the research community," Chaffinch said. "Without the research, even if something is recovered, it's just a pretty piece. It doesn't tell you the context or the history anymore."

Interpol, the international police organization that brings together officers from 181 countries, has sent a response team to Kuwait to await permission to enter Iraq. The U.S. office of Interpol is also holding an international conference at Interpol's headquarters in Lyon, France, on May 5 and 6 to coordinate efforts.

U.S. officials invited many Middle Eastern countries, through which much of the stolen art and artifacts would likely travel, to participate in the conference.

Chaffinch and many historians said the extent of the looting of the Baghdad museums is unparalleled in modern history. While many armies have looted during war, occupying armies have typically kept most museum art collections intact, presumably because they intended their occupations to become permanent.

The main Baghdad museum held more than 170,000 artifacts, including statues, bowls, daggers and other items belonging to kings from 3,000 B.C. and before. Some of the items are still on the museum grounds. But officials say they won't have a clear sense of the damage until they can see for themselves.

After the U.S. military secured the museum site, Iraqi museum officials were allowed back in. A museum and antiquities specialist from London is expected to arrive at the museum in a day or two.

In the meantime, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago has begun posting on a Web site famous pieces that belonged to the museum and that are believed stolen or missing.

"We've been trying to make people aware of the loss," said McGuire Gibson, a professor of Mesopotamian archaeology, who started the site (www.-news.uchicago.edu/releases/photos/antiquities).

"A lot of people will have seen some of these things in school textbooks. We're hoping if the stuff shows up in art markets, people can't pretend they didn't know it was stolen."

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