Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Denying the US market in Iraqi artefacts

US dealers of portable antiquities have always opposed the imposition of the emergency restrictions on the import of Iraqi antiquities (without export licences) into the US. They claim that the American market for unprovenanced bits of other people's portable antiquity heritage is entirely guiltless of any involvement in the trafficing of looted artefacts from Iraq. The internet pro-collecting propaganda is full of solemn assertions of portable antiquity dealers stating outright things such as:so far as I am aware not even a single instance has been reported of any reaching Western art markets." They strenuously assert things like: “very few such objects ever surfaced in Western art and antiquities markets, or any other identifiable and monitored trade channel through which they could be sold to collectors".*

These dealers ask questions like: "what justification is there for asserting that Western collectors and art markets are responsible for looting in Iraq, and are therefore morally obligated to cease their activities to help solve the problem? Especially when there is still no credible evidence that the looted artifacts are being traded in Western markets, or finding their way into the hands of Western collectors?” How unfair, they suggest, that "despite all that has been said regarding the influence of Western antiquities markets upon the ongoing looting in Iraq, no one has yet presented credible evidence of any significant number of such antiquities being offered for sale in these markets. Until there is some evidence that looted Iraqi antiquities are actually reaching Western markets, there is no objective reason to take the sort of action Dr. Mayah is requesting.”

The dealers may say what they want, on the other hand we have statements from portable antiquity collectors in the US such as Nader Rastegar referring to “the flood of antiquities that we have all been witnessing” and “....though somehow mysteriously a steady stream of those items seem to be in possession of US Troops, and showing up in the USA!” So what is the truth of this matter?

Well, we find that at least one archaeological item looted from Baghdad museum seems to have been seized at a US airport within days of the fall of Baghdad. Several journalists and one American soldier were under investigation. Matthew Bogdanos refers in his book to other stuff being handed over to him in New York when he returned from his Iraq mission. In November 2003 it was being reported that looted Iraqi artefacts had been found in London by the Metropolitan Police's specialist arts and antiques squad. A number of men had been arrested, including one at a central London gallery.

At about the same time as certain biased newspapers were suggesting in the summer of 2008 that the looting of archaeological sites in Iraq was reducing, two news items suggested that the role of the US market was by no means as innocent as the portable antiquities traders were suggesting.

On the 9th June 2008 we learnt that eleven agate and alabaster cylinder seals stolen in 2003 from the Baghdad Museum had been seized by U.S. customs officers in Philadelphia in May and were handed over to the Iraqi embassy in Washington from where they were returned to Iraq. The circumstances of the seizure were - suspiciously - never made public.

Now we learn from that on 15 September 2008 in a transfer ceremony at Iraq's embassy in Washington an even larger cache of unprovenanced archaeological artifacts has been returned to Iraq's government, thanks to a multi-year initiative by U.S. customs authorities to intercept items being smuggled into the United State. Iraqi ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie took possession of more than 1,000 rare objects, many of which date back to Mesopotamian times. The objects include inscribed ceramic pieces, figurines, tablets, and ancient coins. They were seized from smugglers who either hid the objects or misrepresented their country of origin to U.S. customs officials. In handing them over, Julie Myers the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said: "These items are much more than souvenirs or art objects - even though that is how people who tried to profit from them treated them; these are part of Iraq's priceless history".Presumably, the artifacts would have been put up for sale in the US had they not been intercepted. These however are just those items that were detected and intercepted. Despite the unamimous denials of those involved in this trade this collection of objects gives ample reason to assume that many more recently-looted items will have slipped through the net and entered the United States despite import restrictions are among those currently on offer as unprovenanced Mesopotamian artefacts on the western markets. How can one attempt to deny this? Do the dealers making such claims expect us to treat them seriously?

* this one with the utterly curious suggestion “There seems to be every reason to think that a system broadly modelled on the UK Treasure Law and Portable Antiquities Scheme would find favor among the Iraqi people” (sic).

Reference Matthew Bogdanos with William Patrick 2005, "Thieves of Baghdad: One Marine’s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures". Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 1582346453.

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

see also the Illicit Cultural Property blog for more on the return of Iraqi material and other recent seizures on US borders:

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