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Firsthand Report: Tracking Down the Looted Treasures of Iraq, Matthew Bogdanos, BAR 31:06, Nov-Dec 2005.

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The world watched in horror as the images were flashed all over the globe- In the chaos that surrounded the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the Iraq Museum—home to a priceless collection of ancient objects from the birthplace of civilization—was being wildly looted.

These initial news reports indicated that more than 170,000 priceless treasures had been stolen from the museum in 48 hours. The list of missing objects read like a “who’s who” of Near Eastern archaeology and included the Sacred Vase of Warka (the world’s oldest known carved stone ritual vessel, from about 3200 B.C.; see photo); the Mask of Warka (generally believed to be the world’s oldest known naturalistic depiction of a human face, from about 3100 B.C.; see cover); the Golden Lyre of Ur (with a gold bull’s head, from the Early Dynastic III Period, about 2600–2500 B.C.; see photos); the Bassetki Statue (one of the earliest known examples of the lost-wax technique of casting, dating to the Akkadian period, about 2250 B.C.; see photo); the Lioness Attacking a Nubian (an extraordinary eighth-century B.C. chryselephantine ivory plaque inlaid with lapis lazuli and carnelian and overlaid with gold; see photo); and the twin copper Ninhursag Bulls (among the oldest known bulls in relief, they were from the facade of the temple built by Mesannipadda, king of Ur, about 2475 B.C.; see photo).

Also unaccounted for were the extraordinary riches recovered from the royal tombs of Ur (about 2600–2500 B.C.) and the Treasure of Nimrud (see photos), a spectacular collection of more than a thousand pieces of gold jewelry and precious stones from the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.

At the time, the U.S. had a highly classified, multi-agency task force in southern Iraq conducting counter-terrorist missions.1 We had just identified a terrorist financing network (blowing open several safes containing tens of millions of freshly minted Iraqi dinars and U.S. dollars in a Ba’ath Party headquarters) and had discovered dozens of Chinese-made Seersucker missiles hidden in a warehouse. As soon as I heard of the looting, I immediately requested permission from General Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, to conduct a preliminary investigation into the looting of the Iraq Museum.

There had also been reports of possible U.S. military involvement in the looting itself. We could not, and would not, ignore these allegations (as the investigation was to show, claims of U.S. complicity turned out to be complete fabrications). I notified the command that I intended to conduct a thorough investigation. That was exactly what they wanted. My immediate boss, Air Force Major General Victor E. Renuart, Jr., referring to a nickname I had been given by the tabloids as a homicide prosecutor in New York, told me, “You know that ‘pit bull’ thing you do in New York? Do the same thing in Baghdad and get to the bottom of this.”
“One more thing,” he added, “Don’t get killed. That’s an order.”

Arriving in Baghdad on the 20th of April—eleven days after the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled—our mission was to determine what had happened at the museum and to recover whatever antiquities we could. Given the lack of a functioning judicial system in Iraq and the nature of the losses, I immediately decided that our primary goal had to be the return of the stolen antiquities to the Iraqi people, not the criminal prosecution of the offenders. Toward that end, we focused our efforts on the recovery of whatever had been stolen—whether days, years, or decades earlier—and decided to break our task into four components- (1) identifying what was missing; (2) sending photographs of missing items to the international law-enforcement and art communities to assist in intercepting the stolen objects in transit; (3) reaching out to Iraqi religious and community leaders to promote an amnesty program for anyone returning antiquities; and (4) conducting raids based on information developed about stolen artifacts.

The first startling discovery we made (and we would make many) was that the museum compound had been turned into a military fighting position. We discovered a sniper position in one of the second-floor storage rooms- a window slit broken open from the inside, with boxes moved against the wall to place the opening at a shooter’s height. Immediately next to this window, one of only two that offered a clear field of fire onto the street on the western side of the museum, were RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) parts, an ammunition box, an AK-47 magazine, a grenade pouch and an inoperable grenade. Nor was this an isolated instance. We found more than 15 Iraqi army uniforms thrown about the museum grounds. We also found a box of fragmentation grenades in the front of the administrative building immediately next to one of two firing positions that had been dug in the front of the museum compound. We found two more identical firing positions—one in the rear of the museum and one on the side of the compound—and each of the four could hold four shooters. According to several witnesses, they were used by some of the 100–150 Iraqi soldiers who had fired on U.S. troops from within the compound. There were also expended RPGs and boxes of live (not yet fired) RPGs scattered throughout the museum compound. Like the rest of the world, I’d also seen the infamous hole in the façade of the Children’s Museum (the building between the galleries and the main street). When I saw that it was the result of a single round fired from the 120-mm main gun of a U.S. M1A1 Abrams tank, I began to understand the world-wide condemnation surrounding the museum. Then I saw the evidence. The tank gunner fired only after someone had fired an RPG, at him from that building. On the roof, we found a stash of RPGs and, inside, blood splatter whose pattern suggested that at least two Iraqis had been on the third floor when the round hit its mark.

Once we cleared the compound of all explosives and weapons, we turned to our first task- to identify what was missing—a daunting task given the sheer size of the museum’s collection and its incomplete, non-computerized record-keeping system. To further complicate matters, the museum’s storage rooms contained not only catalogued items but also pieces from various excavations throughout the country that had not yet been catalogued. Worse still, over the last several decades the museum staff and government officials had systematically removed items to several other locations, making the otherwise merely difficult task of compiling what was missing into one of Herculean difficulty.

After a quick walk-through of the museum and its grounds on our first day to assess the damage, we began a painstakingly methodical, room-by-room inspection that took months, covering the administrative offices, restoration rooms, public galleries and storage rooms. What was clear within the first few hours of our initial inspection of the museum on April 21, 2003, however, was that the originally reported number of 170,000 items stolen in 48 hours had to be wrong. It was obvious that there were simply not enough empty cases, shelves or pedestals in the entire museum for there to have been anything near 170,000 objects stolen. Moreover, had it really been done in 48 hours, it would not have been looters, but highly organized thieves.

Our second task was to disseminate quickly photographs of the missing items to law-enforcement officials throughout the world. We were concerned that customs and border officials might not easily recognize certain types of antiquities as contraband and, therefore, illegal. The key was to get those photographs out to border officials before the items reached their destination. We therefore also began to educate international law-enforcement authorities in the identification of antiquities.

The third component to our strategy consisted of an amnesty policy that we publicized as the “no questions asked” program. We met with local imams and community leaders, who then communicated this policy to the Iraqi public. We also advertised the program in local newspapers and on radio stations. Because we recognized that we were operating in an ancient guest culture, we decided to walk the streets without helmets, moving from marketplace to marketplace and slowly building trust with the residents of Baghdad. Many afternoons found us in neighborhood cafés, drinking more tea than I thought possible, playing backgammon and forming relationships that might later bear fruit. In one café, a known hangout for smugglers of all stripes, we developed a friendship with an Iraqi. Because he was a former professional boxer, I told him that I boxed for the New York City Police Department. One afternoon, to allow my partner, Steve Mocsary, to meet unnoticed with an informant in the back of the café, I began playfully sparring in the front of the café with the Iraqi boxer, a heavyweight who was as smooth as he was big. If I close my eyes, I can still feel that right hand of his, but we got the information we needed.

Each return under the enormously successful amnesty program depended on real courage of individual Iraqis, for many of whom authority under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime meant death squads, gang rapes and mass graves. For example, in 1999 ten thieves had cut off the head of an Assyrian human-headed bull from the palace of Sargon II (721–705 B.C.) at Khorsabad to make it easier to transport out of the country. The thieves were caught, brought back to Baghdad and all ten were executed—by beheading. By the time we arrived, the museum staff had placed the Assyrian head on the floor in one of the galleries between two reliefs (see photo), pointing out (not without a touch of irony) the similarity between what happened to the bull and the thieves. We could not ignore the reality of the prior regime’s atrocities if we wanted our amnesty program to succeed. Given their frame of reference, our first challenge was to convince the Iraqis that we were different—thus no helmets and plenty of tea.

In the beginning the response was tentative as we also struggled with the connection in people’s minds between the museum and the former regime, particularly with the Ba’ath Party. Thanks in part to our patience, but mostly owing to the strong sense of history and culture of the average Iraqi, the amnesty program ultimately resulted in the return of approximately 1,935 antiquities between our arrival in April and the end of December 2003. After that time, because of normal rotation schedules and the requirements of other missions, we were no longer able to maintain a regular presence at the museum.

As for those who returned the artifacts, there were as many different methods and reasons for coming forward as there were individuals coming forward. Sometimes people would approach us on the street and ask what would happen to their “friend” if he returned an antiquity. Others would suggest that they might know someone who might know someone who might have an artifact. Some would ask if there was a reward for any returned property. Because seasoned investigators are always willing to pay for information but not for the contraband itself, this was a thorny question that we usually deflected. Some would drop a bag near the museum; some would approach empty-handed, needing extra persuasion; some would come with the artifacts in hand. The locations varied. Sometimes they turned in the objects to the nearest mosque. Sometimes they came to the museum. Sometimes we met them at a remote street corner. Sometimes they turned in antiquities to random U.S. soldiers whom they approached while the soldiers were directing traffic at intersections or manning military checkpoints somewhere in the city.

Occasionally we even found returned items in previously inspected rooms in the museum itself—loudly “chastising” each other in front of as many staff as possible for having “missed” those items during the previous inspection, but just as loudly noting that we would not be able to re-inspect those rooms for another few days or so. Invariably more items were subsequently “found” in those rooms, and the same scene was repeated.

No matter the question we were asked, the answer was always the same- “Why don’t we talk about it over a cup of tea?” Some, albeit the minority, had taken the items for safekeeping, intending to return them as soon as it was safe to do so. Far more had stolen the artifacts, but then had a change of heart when they realized they were stealing not from the regime but from themselves. Many simply grew worried they would be caught. Mothers turned in items stolen by their sons; sons turned in items stolen by their friends; employees turned in items stolen by their bosses. One of the first returns was a small Hassuna-style pot with its characteristic reddish linear design from the sixth millennium B.C. It came back in a garbage bag. The Sacred Vase of Warka was returned on June 12, 2003, in the trunk of a car, along with 95 other artifacts, after two weeks of negotiations. While money was discussed, none was ever used, and the vase came back gratis.

The amnesty program was so well publicized that, while home on leave in Manhattan in late summer 2003, I was contacted by an individual who had learned of the investigation on the news and had a “package” for me. We arranged a meeting in a crowded coffee shop in the middle of the day in midtown Manhattan. He handed me a small brown envelope without incident (and again without money), and a 4,000-year-old Akkadian piece is now back in the Iraq Museum where it belongs.

The fourth and final component to the investigation involved classic law-enforcement techniques such as investigative raids and random car-stops at checkpoints throughout Iraq, as well as increased vigilance at international borders. Raids on targeted locations resulted in the recovery inside Iraq of 2,027 artifacts between our arrival in April and the end of December 2003. Most notable among the recoveries inside Iraq were those made by the U.S. Army’s 812th Military Police Company. In September 2003, it conducted a predawn raid on a farmhouse in al-Rabbia, north of Baghdad, and found the breathtaking Mask of Warka buried under about a foot and a half of dirt in the backyard. Six weeks later, acting on a tip about a smuggling ring that was operating in southeast Baghdad, the company conducted another predawn raid, this time recovering a cache of small arms and the Nimrud brazier, the only known example of a wheeled wooden firebox. Clad in bronze, it had been used to warm the throne room of King Shalmaneser III (ruled 858–824 B.C.). Using information acquired during that seizure, the company raided a warehouse in Baghdad later that same day and recovered 76 pieces that had been stolen from the museum’s basement, including 32 cylinder seals and the extraordinary Bassetki Statue—the latter submerged in a cesspool behind the warehouse and covered in grease by patient smugglers willing to wait for a more favorable time to move and sell the statue.

None of these recoveries would have been possible without the overwhelming support and trust of the Iraqi people. It was a trust we all worked hard to develop, largely by taking the time and effort to trust them first. It was a trust the Iraqis slowly but warmly returned. Relying heavily on local informants was precisely how I had conducted hundreds of criminal investigations in New York City. And, in Baghdad as in New York, each informant had his own reason for coming forward. Some simply wanted the offenders caught. Some were only interested in a reward—and were always paid for their information. Others were rival antiquities dealers wishing to put their competition out of business.

Similarities aside, there was one striking difference between conducting law-enforcement operations in New York and doing so in a combat zone. Any seasoned detective will tell you there are always two questions that must be raised before trusting any informant- What is the source of his information (how does he know what he says he knows) and what is his motivation (why is he coming forward)? In Baghdad, however, there was a third question we had to ask- Were we being led into an ambush? That we were never ambushed is as much a testament to the character of the Iraqi people as to our law-enforcement-honed instincts about whom to trust and whom to view with suspicion.

In one case in which our instincts did not work, an elderly couple came to us breathless and distraught. They told us they were caretakers of a nearby manuscript museum that contained some of the finest Islamic manuscripts in the world, many more than a thousand years old, and said armed looters had just entered their museum. If we wanted to save the collection and catch the thieves, there was no time to waste. Within five minutes, 12 team members flew out of the compound in our vehicles. Without any reconnaissance of either the target or the area surrounding it, we did it the “Marine way,” improvising on the fly and developing the tactical plan over our radios as we sped to the location.

As we pulled up, we saw that the manuscript museum was a three-story building, and while we would have preferred reaching its roof from an adjoining building and then clearing the building top to bottom, none of the nearby buildings was close enough. All of them, however, offered clear fields of fire on us as we entered and left the building. We had no choice but to go in the front. Leaving one three-man team to cover the front door, we entered and began methodically clearing all three floors. It was not until we got to the roof, in 115 degree heat and wearing 20 pounds of body armor, that we realized that we had been had. There were no looters, and there had not been any that day.

Back at the compound, the elderly couple told us the truth. It had been a test, and we had “passed.” Looters had been there the previous day and were coming back in a day or two to steal what remained. The caretakers had come to us to learn whether we would respond and, if we did, to prove to potential thieves how fast the Americans would react. The looters never did return.

As for the thefts from the Iraq Museum, our investigation showed there had been not one but three separate thefts from the museum, by three separate groups, in the four days between April 8 and 12. Forty pieces were stolen from the public galleries and nearby restoration rooms, with the thieves appearing to have been organized and selective in their choice of artifacts, stealing the more valuable items and bypassing copies and less valuable pieces. Of these 40, 15 have been recovered, including five of the finest pieces in the museum collection- the Sacred Vase of Warka, the Mask of Warka, the Bassetki Statue, one of the two Ninhursag Bulls and a ninth-century B.C. Assyrian ivory headboard from Nimrud. These recoveries highlight the complexity of the investigation. The amnesty program netted two of the five finest pieces (the bull was returned as a walk-in, and the vase after some negotiation but no money), while seizures accounted for the other three—two inside Iraq (the Warka mask and the Bassetki Statue) and one outside Iraq by Jordanian customs (the ivory headboard). The other ten were returned under similarly diverse circumstances.
Sadly, many priceless pieces remain missing. Two of the most prominent are a headless inscribed limestone statue from Lagash (about 2450 B.C.) and the eighth-century B.C. Lioness Attacking a Nubian ivory from Nimrud.

The second theft was from the museum’s aboveground storage rooms. Of three such storage rooms, two were looted, but none of their exterior steel doors showed any signs of forced entry. The evidence strongly suggests, therefore, that the first person to enter the aboveground storage rooms had the keys and personally knew the museum well (or was with someone who knew it well). Because access to the museum and especially its storage rooms was carefully controlled, the key holder had to have been either a returning staff member or someone (Iraqi army or civilian) to whom a staff member had given the necessary information. In either event, the unforced entry into the storage rooms of the museum required the kind of knowledge and access only a staff member possessed.

Approximately 3,138 excavated objects (jars, vessels, pottery sherds) were stolen from these storage rooms. Objects in these rooms are arranged by site, year and field number, not by museum number, and must be hand-checked against excavation catalogues. Although the shelved pieces from older excavations had been largely counted, in the aisles were many dozens of boxes containing pieces from more recent excavations that had been received by the staff before the war but had not yet been entered into the museum’s index card system. It is therefore currently impossible to provide an exact figure for the number of pieces stolen from these rooms and it is likely that the number will increase by one or two thousand when final inventories are tallied.

It was in these randomly looted storage rooms that we discovered evidence of the sniper position mentioned earlier. During the battle, U.S. forces fired a single round at the sniper that penetrated the wall and (as our later examination determined) missed him by about 18 inches. The sniper appears to have immediately abandoned his position, as shown by the trail of Iraqi army uniform parts strewn across the floor and stairwell that traced the path of his flight. The sniper’s hasty escape offers a possible explanation for why the storage rooms bore no signs of forced entry- in his haste he left the door open. But this does not explain how he (or they—snipers generally operate in two-man teams- the sniper and his spotter) got into the storage room in the first place.

As of the end of December 2003, about 3,037 pieces stolen from these storage rooms had been recovered—about 1,924 via the amnesty program and 1,113 from seizures. I am aware, from contacts within the museum and with law-enforcement officials throughout the world, of more recoveries (both through amnesty and seizures) after December 2003, but with not enough specificity to provide details or numbers here.

The evidence strongly suggests that the third theft, that of a basement-level storage room, was an inside job. Here, the thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable items, stored in the most remote corner of the most remote room in the basement of the museum. The locked front door of the L-shaped suite of four storage rooms was intact, and its rear door could be accessed only through a remote, narrow and hidden stairwell. As a further protection from theft, the staff had bricked up the back entrance, completely sealing those four rooms. It was to no avail. As we crept down that dark hidden stairwell, we saw that the metal rear door was wide open and—as we had come to expect by then—that it showed no signs of forced entry. Worse still, the bricked rear doorway had been broken and entered.

We climbed through the narrow breach in the top of the wall and discovered that a theft had occurred. Three of the four rooms in this storage area were untouched, and we all began to breathe a sigh of relief—until we reached a single corner in the fourth room, where the chaos was shocking- 103 fishing-tackle-sized plastic boxes, originally containing thousands of cylinder seals, beads, amulets and jewelry, were randomly thrown in all directions. What remained of their contents was scattered everywhere. Amid the devastation, hundreds of larger, but empty, boxes nearby had been untouched. It was immediately clear that these thieves knew what they were looking for and where to look.

The thieves had the keys (previously well hidden elsewhere in the museum) to 30 nondescript storage cabinets lining that particular corner of the room. Those cabinets contained a portion of the world’s finest collection of cylinder seals and tens of thousands of unparalleled Greek, Roman, Hellenistic, Arabic and Islamic gold and silver coins. It is simply inconceivable that this area had been breached by anyone who did not have an intimate insider’s knowledge of the museum and this particular hidden corner of the basement.

After a methodical, hours-long search in a fully lit basement, we eventually found the keys under the scattered debris. Once most of the forensic examination was completed, we finally inspected the cabinets; Dr. Nawala al-Mutwali, the museum’s director, and I apprehensively opened each one together. To our extreme joy, we discovered that none had been entered.

Piecing together what happened, we concluded that the thieves had lost the keys to the cabinets after dropping them in one of the plastic boxes on the floor. Because there was no electricity in the museum at the time of the looting, they had decided to burn the foam padding for light. After unsuccessfully searching for the keys, throwing boxes and their contents in every direction, all the while breathing the noxious fumes of the burning padding in the unventilated basement, the thieves eventually left without opening any of the cabinets. A catastrophic loss of the priceless collection inside the cabinets had been averted. The contents of the plastic boxes on the floor and some of the items on the nearby shelves, however, were stolen, including 5,144 cylinder seals and 5,542 pins, glass bottles, beads, amulets and other pieces of jewelry.

Approximately 2,307 of the 10,686 antiquities that had been stolen from the basement have been recovered- one through the amnesty program (at the coffee shop in New York), 911 from inside Iraq, and 1,395 from seizures outside Iraq. This highlights the critical importance of both seizures and international cooperation in recovering Iraq’s stolen antiquities, particularly the smaller, more transportable objects. Of the 911 items stolen from the basement that were recovered inside Iraq, 820 were recovered by the Iraqi Italian Institute of Archaeological Sciences in November 2003. The product of months of investigative work by Italian authorities, most of the cache had been clandestinely purchased—good results but a bad precedent and certainly not one any of us wished to publicize. Paying for information works; paying for contraband, however, promotes new theft as much as it recovers old thefts. The remaining 1,395 recoveries of items stolen from the basement all occurred outside Iraq through border searches and international investigations.

Altogether, then, the evidence indicates that 13,864 pieces were originally stolen from the museum, but the evidence also indicates that the final number of missing items is likely to top 15,000 when inventories are finally completed. The most reasonable accounting of what has been recovered worldwide of the items stolen from the museum is 15 pieces from the public galleries, approximately 3,037 pieces from the aboveground storage rooms and approximately 2,307 pieces from the basement, for a total of approximately 5,359 pieces that the museum staff or I have personally verified.

As the investigation moves beyond its two-year mark, it faces several obstacles in the attempt to recover the antiquities and stop their trafficking. First, smugglers draw few distinctions- whether the cargo is drugs, weapons or antiquities, smugglers are paid for their ability to evade the law. Indeed, during the first leg of the journey out of Iraq, antiquities and weapons often travel together. Those wealthy Madison Avenue and Bond Street dealers and collectors who believe they are engaged in benign criminal activity are actually often financing weapons smuggling. In the last year, some of that money has also funded the insurgency in Iraq.

Second, many in the mainstream art community are complicit in antiquities smuggling. Because neither private collectors nor acquisitive museum curators are usually able or willing to contact art thieves directly, the middleman art dealer is crucial, often making the sale before the theft. Moreover, before any collector or museum pays for a stolen antiquity, the object must first be authenticated as genuine, at a price, by an expert curator, dealer or scholar. The price is not always money. We have been told that sometimes the “price” is access to an item that no one else has seen or critically examined before and that sometimes scholars are attracted to this sordid business by the opportunity to publish a rare or unusual item. The allure, apparently, is overwhelming for some. After an artifact is authenticated, however, and before it can be displayed or resold, it must acquire provenance, either through publication by a respected authority or through forged documentation.

Finally, many countries have less interest in stopping the illegal trade in antiquities than might be indicated by their public protestations, particularly because “open” borders are profitable borders. Some countries generate sizeable customs and excise fees from shipping and are not eager to impose any increase in inspection rates that might reduce such revenue. Moreover, the sheer volume of tonnage that passes through certain international ports and free-trade zones makes anything approaching complete inspection impossible. Even the improved technology placed at such ports and borders as a result of the September 11 attacks does not solve the problem- Devices that detect weapons and explosives do not detect alabaster, lapis lazuli or carnelian.

Recovering the remaining missing pieces, then, will likely take years of hard work and a little luck. Mostly, though, it requires a comprehensive global strategy including improved border inspections, heightened public awareness and robust international cooperation that promotes coordinated simultaneous investigations around the globe of smugglers, sellers and buyers, with prosecution and incarceration as very real options.

Justice is also about process, and our other goal, in addition to recovering the stolen artifacts, was to cut through the unproductive rhetoric and uncover the truth about what happened at the Iraq Museum. I hope we have accomplished this. The missing artifacts belong to the Iraqi people, but in a very real sense they also represent the shared history of all mankind. So much remains to be done, but after two years I am humbled to have worked with so many talented and dedicated professionals. To the extent that we have taken even the smallest first step in the recovery of these treasures, I am extraordinarily honored to have served in so worthy an undertaking.

Uncredited photos courtesy of the author. For a complete account of the investigation and the illicit antiquities trade, see the author’s just-released book, Thieves of Baghdad- One Marine’s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures (Bloomsbury, 2005). For a more scholarly treatment, see his article, “The Casualties of War- The Truth about the Iraq Museum,” in American Journal of Archaeology 109 (2005), pp. 477–526.

1. This was the U.S. government’s first fully operational multi-agency task force ever deployed by a combatant commander to a war zone. Previously tested in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, the team was led by the military but contained superbly trained investigators and trigger-pullers from a dozen different federal law-enforcement agencies, including the CIA, U.S. Customs, FBI, Diplomatic Security Service, the Departments of Energy and the Treasury, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. I was honored to have been chosen to command this task force.

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