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Commentary

Method to Madness in Museum Looting

April 17, 2003|Eleanor Robson | Eleanor Robson is a professor at All Souls College, Oxford, England, and a council member of the British School of Archeology in Iraq.

It is now almost certain that at least some of the shocking despoliation of the museums in Mosul and Baghdad was organized by Iraqi gangs taking orders from foreign collectors.

The thieves knew what they were looking for. The breathtakingly beautiful, 5,000-year-old Uruk vase has vanished, while a convincing plaster-cast replica of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (king of Assyria 858-824 BC) remains unscathed in a sea of empty, shattered display cases.

Card index files and computers were smashed and burned beyond repair in a seemingly deliberate move to frustrate curators' attempts to catalog the missing objects.

Around this central theft of high-profile objects was a huge penumbra of opportunistic looting and violence. Storage cases were dragged out into the street and passersby helped themselves. Objects on shelves were wantonly smashed.

It is to be hoped that many of the smaller, less-valuable items will be handed over to mosques and community centers as part of the general amnesty on stolen goods. Many others will change hands for a few dollars needed to buy food, water or medicine.

Cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets and ancient coins will leave the country in suitcases and backpacks. The standard route out of Iraq is through Israel to Switzerland and then to London, Paris and New York.

These items will appear for sale for $50 or $100 in antiques stores all over the Middle East, Europe and North America or on EBay. The unsuspecting or the unscrupulous will buy them as novelty Christmas presents or coffee-table pieces.

In the years since the 1991 Gulf War, tens of thousands of small antiquities left Iraq this way. About 4,000 were stolen from Iraq's provincial museums during the uprisings in 1991, but most were excavated illicitly from a handful of ancient sites that the Iraqi archeological service was not able to protect.

As for the high-profile, high-value items taken by the organized thieves, we may never see them again. They are too well known for anyone to risk taking them to a reputable dealer or auction house. They will become collateral in drug deals or remain hidden in bank vaults. Some of the thefts may have been commissioned directly by collectors and will go straight to their new "owners."

Other artifacts may be deliberately damaged so that they no longer resemble their published photographs. Looters may chip off the nose of a statue, for instance, so that it is different but still valuable. Or they may use a hammer and chisel to erase the inscription from a piece, much as a more mundane criminal might remove the serial number from a gun. When these altered pieces are offered for sale on the open market, it will be almost impossible to identify them and therefore to confiscate and repatriate them.

The risks are worth it to criminal gangs. Ten years ago, a legally owned Assyrian relief from 850 BC was auctioned at Christie's in London for $11 million, at that time the highest price ever paid for an antiquity at auction.

We need effective import and export bans on all antiquities, and we need them now. Obviously that won't help with all the antiquities that have been looted from Iraq. But it could prevent such contract looting in the future.

Countries must abide by the 1970 Paris Convention of UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, on prohibiting and preventing the theft and exporting of cultural property.

In addition, countries should immediately pass laws providing for confiscation at any national border. Customs and excise officers should be trained in identifying and handling art objects to avoid such mistakes as when British customs agents seized some Afghan statues last year that they suspected carried drugs. There were no drugs, but the holes the agents drilled to check for them mutilated the statues.

We can't completely restore Iraq's antiquities, but we can repatriate some of them and prevent future crimes against the world's artistic heritage.

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