UNESCO: Iraqi Treasures Plundered by Professionals

There is hardly a country like Iraq that accumulates such incredible riches
US's Attorney General John Ashcroft came out at the Interpol headquarters in Lyon and promised to find and punish robbers who had stolen values from Iraqi museums and libraries. But the audience didn't find the speech very much impressive. Restitution of plundered values is going to be a complicated and long process, as well as the attempts to restitute the cultural values transferred during WWII. What is more, some of UNESCO and Interpol representatives  make hints that Americans cannot be given the mission: the occupation forces that allowed looting of Iraqi cultural treasures are certainly guilty of their negligence.

Landscape After the War

Engineer of the American TV channel Fox News, Benjamin Johnson was detained at the airport of Washington for smuggling cultural items from Iraq. When his luggage was unpacked by order of customs officers, the people saw a heap of paintings and luxurious trifles. An art expert called to the accident site classified the contents of the luggage as a steal. Although the passenger himself insisted the items were souvenirs for the family. As it turned out, the paintings were registered in the catalogues as belonging to private collections of Saddam Hussein's elder son Udei. The engineer may be imprisoned for five years and will have to pay 250 thousand dollars of fine for the smuggling. It is naive to think that the Fox News engineer was the only American who brought such "souvenirs" from Iraq. As for these pictures, they are just a small part of the Iraqi cultural heritage that dissolved within just few days.

While reading the lists of precious items confiscated by customs officers in London's airport Heathrow and Boston's Logan airport, it suddenly becomes clear that something of this kind has already happened. The situation was practically the same after the First Gulf War. During the wartime disorders in Iraq, looters managed to supply thousands of unique items to the black market. However, today's scale of looting is much higher than in 1991. 

Even the Pentagon doesn't put absolute trust in its military. During seizure of Baghdad, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division discovered tens of aluminum boxed filled with 100-dollar notes. Handing of the discovered money to authorities was officially organized well: the money was transferred to the military treasury and will be included into the budget of democratic Iraq next year. However, as it turned out, the noble money transfer was proper as fixed on paper only. In fact, some soldiers hid three boxes with dollars in a cesspool and in a tree's hollow. Then the situation developed like in a Hollywood film: the money was handed over to authorities, the criminals will have to appear before the tribunal. Are there any guarantees that American military sold no treasures from Iraqi museums on the side?

For the time being, UNESCO Deputy Director for culture Munir Bushenaki says, the organization has no evidence on direct connection of coalition officers and soldiers with looting of the Iraqi cultural heritage. However, Americans and Britons showed no resistance to looting of Iraqi museums, which gives much food for reflection.  
Director of the Iraq National Museum Donny George saw himself vandals looting antique collections and understood that there were two types of people among them. "Some of them were casual people who seized everything that fell in their hands in Iraqi museums. Others were wonderfully equipped experts who sought for those cultural treasures that they needed. Some of them even had keys from galleries and safes where works of art were kept." Donny George found a professional instrument meant for cutting the bullet-proof glasses protecting exhibits in museums. It means that not ordinary pilferers but wonderfully trained professionals operated in Iraqi museums.

It is even suggested that in most cases those professional thieves were hired by private collectors hunting for some particular exhibits. Were items stolen from Iraqi museums particularly precious? The UNESCO Deputy Director General says that there is hardly a country like Iraq that accumulates incredible riches. Iraq holds values of civilization created on different stages of development.

According to approximate calculations, over 200,000 works of art disappeared in Iraq within two or three days of looting. Some of them are really priceless. Munir Bushenaki says that the list of cultural values lost in Iraq will be still increasing. For the time being, there is only information about treasures seized in looting in Baghdad. There is no information about plundering of Iraqi heritage in Basra or Mosul. It is for sure that if stolen items of art are removed out of the country, there will be no hope to restore precious exhibits from private collections. 
It is police that is to investigate the plundering. That is why a UNESCO expedition leaving for Iraq soon will also consist of Interpol specialists. Italian carabineers also participated in the conference at Interpol headquarters in Lyon. They have considerable experience in the struggle with illegal trafficking of artworks. In a word, the expedition is going to start a large-scale campaign to prevent illegal removal of treasures from Iraq. The government of Switzerland has already appropriated 250 thousand francs for the campaign. Italy appropriated $400,000 for restoration of the Iraqi treasure heritage. Japan is going to appropriate $1 million for this purposes soon.

It is astonishing, but plunderers selected only originals from exhibits of the National Museum in Baghdad, although there were also many copies among them. Only high-class specialists can fight with such experienced thieves effectively. That is why specialists from the International Council of Museums, the International Confederation of Art and Antique Dealers, London's Art Loss Register have already joined UNESCO in realization of the hard mission of Iraqi treasures restoration. The organizations will develop a comparative dossier of Iraqi treasures to find out what was smuggled out of the country during the war and what stayed in Iraq by a miracle.

Unfortunately, experts say that it is too late to take some of the above mentioned measures. It has been quite a long period since end of the war in Iraq for stolen rarities to be delivered to the American or European black markets.
Specialists suppose that treasures stolen in Iraq may soon show up on the illegal antique market in Lebanon, they say the country is the main basis for trade of this kind. 


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Author`s name Michael Simpson