Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Looting of Baghdad Museum

U.S. forces invaded Iraq 15 years ago this week and we remember the looting of the  National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad (Sigal Samuel, 'It’s Disturbingly Easy to Buy Iraq’s Archeological Treasures' The Atlantic March 19, 2018).  The story begins with a dramatisation of the theft and recovery of the Lady of Warka head
a priceless Sumerian artifact dating back to 3100 B.C., it’s the earliest known representation of the human face. It was looted from the museum in Baghdad—along with 15,000 other antiquities—in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Soon after, a tip from an Iraqi informant led American and Iraqi investigators to raid a nearby farm. They found the Lady of Warka intact. In September 2003, it was returned to the museum. Other artifacts have not been as lucky. Fifteen years after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein, ushering in a period of instability that led to the plunder of the museum while ignoring pleas to secure the building, some 7,000 looted items have been returned, but about 8,000 are still out there. 
It is worth noting one reason why 'portable antiquities' are called 'portable antiquities' and why this is important:
Most of the Iraqi antiquities sold online are small. Of the large items stolen from the museum in 2003, the majority have been returned. Many Iraqis who looted these items quickly realized they couldn’t sell them because they were too recognizable, and took advantage of the amnesty that the museum offered for anyone returning stolen goods. Some iconic items were swept up in raids or got caught at customs as smugglers tried to export them. The U.S. has helped recover and repatriate some of these. A stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash, which weighs hundreds of pounds and is missing its head, was stolen from Baghdad soon after the invasion. A clandestine operation involving federal prosecutors in New York led its recovery in 2006 and its return to Iraq in 2010. 
It is worth noting, which the journalist does not, the Aboutaam brothers played a part in this recovery. It is also worth noting that this piece made it to New York before it was found. Another one that got there:
Another high-profile case centered on a limestone statue—this one consisting of nothing but a head—of the Assyrian king Sargon II. The artifact was seized in New York in 2008 and returned to Iraq in 2015. (Like London, New York is a major hub for the antiquities market, given the city’s many galleries and auction houses.)  Although the U.S. has been actively repatriating artifacts—Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned more than 1,200 items between 2008 and 2015 alone—it has also let some things slide. “It is worth noting that there were no follow-up congressional hearings or independent investigations to pinpoint the parties responsible for the negligence connected to the museum debacle,” Archeology Magazine reported in 2013. What’s more, as the Chicago Tribune reported in 2015, “American military members, contractors, and others caught with culturally significant artifacts they brought home from the war there largely aren’t prosecuted.” It’s not known how many Americans brought home artifacts as souvenirs or war trophies, but one expert suggested to the Tribune that the known cases—a defense contractor who brought back gold-plated items from Saddam’s palaces; a U.S. employee who shipped home an Iraq government seal; a Marine who bought eight ancient looted stone seals off the street—are just “the tiniest tip of the iceberg.” 

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