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Iraq: UNESCO Seeks Active Role In Recovery Of Artifacts

  • Nikola Krastev

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is negotiating with the United States on sending an assessment mission to Iraq next week as part of its efforts to recover the antiquities looted from museums in Baghdad and other cities. The agency plans to send an eight-member team to create a database of looted cultural artifacts in order to help prevent them from disappearing onto the international art market. But as RFE/RL reports, history suggests that few of the stolen items will ever return to the museums from which they were taken.

United Nations, 2 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura says negotiations are under way with the U.S. State Department to send a team of antiquities experts to Iraq to assist in cataloging and tracing items looting from the country's museums in the days following the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Speaking on 30 April at the United Nations, Matsuura said UNESCO experts hope to visit a number of Iraqi cities and are already working with international law enforcement, customs, and cultural organizations to stop the spread of the looted antiquities.

"At the moment, what is very crucial is to prohibit the exhibition and exportation of such illicit Iraqi cultural goods from the Iraqi territory," Matsuura said "And also, in third countries, it is crucial to take measures to stop the importation of such illicit cultural goods from Iraq. And in that context, it is very urgent to establish the necessary database indicating what cultural goods should be put on the list of prohibition."

Matsuura said UNESCO hopes to establish a database that will compensate for the dismal state of Iraq's own cataloguing system. Many of the antiquities displayed in Iraqi museums were not properly documented to begin with, making it almost impossible to ensure their safe return.

One of the first steps in the recovery efforts, Matsuura said, was instituting tighter border controls. "We have asked all neighboring countries to tighten their border control. And in fact, in some countries -- for instance in Jordan -- police recovered certain artifacts in bags of foreign travelers who were about to leave the Iraqi territory, [and the artifacts] were confiscated. And also we are appealing to the Iraqi people to give back voluntarily what they stole from museum[s]. And some Iraqi people are coming in with such cultural goods," he said.

The UNESCO head has also asked UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to ask the Security Council for a resolution placing a temporary embargo on the acquisition of any Iraqi cultural objects and calling for such goods to be returned if acquisitions or exports have already taken place.

Reports on how many items were stolen during the looting sprees that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime are varied and conflicting. Baghdad's National Museum, for example, was the site of rampant looting after the fall of the capital on 9 April. But now U.S. investigators and some museum officials say the losses may be less devastating than originally believed. A U.S. military representative was quoted as saying that the number of missing museum pieces may be "in the dozens," rather than in the thousands as initially reported.

Matsuura said if history is any lesson, very few of Iraq's looted items will ever be returned. He said following the first Gulf War in 1991, of the 4,000 cultural treasures stolen from Iraqi museums, only 40 were ever located.

Howard Nowes is the owner of a New York gallery specializing in classical antiquities. He said he does not buy items from people who walk in off the street, adding that the return of looted Iraqi art is as much a legal issue as an ethical one.

"Let's hope that the border people are up to speed to stop it," he said. "Everybody is sensitive to the issue now and dealers will be very careful when buying this material. And if there's nobody buying it, hopefully that will discourage anybody trying to put it on the open market. You want to do the most ethical thing possible and not buy anything that's offered."

Nowes said he and most New York art dealers typically require written assurances that items have not been stolen and have been in the owner's possession for a considerable length of time. But in the end, he said, it is almost impossible to absolutely guarantee the legitimate origins of a piece, and that many art deals are often a matter of good faith. He said it is not clear who was responsible for the Iraqi museum looting -- black-market art dealers looking for particular pieces, or people simply looking to for something to sell.

"In the higher end of the spectrum, [the looters may have been working for buyers who] were people who went out and asked for it in the first place -- very dubious collectors who want [specific] pieces [that are earmarked] even before they are stolen. But we don't know if that's the case here. It could be people who are just looking for money, and that's why they did it," Nowes said.

Art experts say smaller, less valuable pieces -- such as vases and jars -- will almost certainly make their way onto the market. The next six months may provide a window of opportunity for illicit dealers while Iraqi museums rush to compile catalogs of the looted items. Nowes said unfortunately, some of the looted items may end up being sold in local markets for a fraction of their real value.

"You could think about flea markets, open markets where people don't get receipts and there are cash transactions done. Those are places where you may find things, but it's unlikely. And certainly not in reputable galleries or museums, things like that," he said.

In the meantime, UNESCO is working with experts around the world to compile an inventory of the looted items and to encourage customs workers, museum officials, and art dealers to keep an eye out for stolen Iraqi artifacts. UNESCO is also preparing to reopen a Baghdad office "as soon as possible," to help with the recovery effort, Director-General Matsuura said.