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Germany: Police On The Watch For Looted Iraqi Antiquities

  • Roland Eggleston

Germany has begun making regular checks of art dealers, collectors of Middle Eastern antiquities, and suspected smugglers in the search for treasures looted from Baghdad and other parts of Iraq following the end of the war. According to a leading German expert, the black market in Europe, the United States, and Japan is known for having an insatiable thirst for cultural treasures from Mesopotamia.

Munich, 6 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- No one knows for sure how many antiquities were stolen from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad and other institutions after the fall of the capital to U.S. troops on 9 April. Some estimate that at least 170,000 artifacts were carried away in a two-day frenzy.

Some of the stolen pieces are worth million of dollars, such as the so-called Warka vase, a piece of Sumerian alabaster more than 5,000 years old. Most of the thousands of other pieces are less archaeologically valuable and therefore easier to sell. Experts expect these to be offered for private sale or to appear in antique shops in the Middle East, Europe, and North America, sometimes for as little as a few hundred dollars each.

The German national police says it expects some of the less valuable pieces looted from Iraq to turn up in Germany, although none has so far done so. Police and other agencies are calling regularly on art dealers and collectors of Middle Eastern antiquities to see if they have heard from possible sellers.

A police spokesman identified Berlin and Munich as the two German cities where some pieces might circulate on the black market.

Professor Walter Sommerfeld of the University of Marburg is a specialist on Mesopotamian antiquities. He said any pieces smuggled into Germany or other parts of Europe are sure to find buyers, despite the worldwide campaign to recover the looted pieces and return them to Iraq.

He said many collectors and cultural institutions "lose their conscience" when it comes to obtaining Mesopotamian antiquities. "There are art lovers, rich collectors who will pay practically any price. I know of a few who have bought thousands, even tens of thousands, of pieces in the last few years --- and all out of the soil of Iraq," he said.

For Sommerfeld, looting after the fall of Baghdad is just an extension of the robbery of the cultural treasures of Iraq that began after the first Gulf War in 1991. Such robbery took place with the approval of Saddam Hussein's regime, which shared in the profits.

He said this explains the sudden appearance at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, on 9 April, of what several witnesses have described as professional gangs of thieves who knew which artifacts were the most precious. "They have been pillaging antiquities in Iraq for years," Sommerfeld said. "And they have regular customers ready to pay."

German television has shown gangs stripping valuable paintings from their frames in what appears to be a professional manner. Experts have said that heads were removed from statues from the ancient city of Hatra -- an indication that looters knew exactly what they wanted.

Experts believe the most priceless treasures were taken by such gangs, rather than by ignorant looters. These include the so-called Harp of Ur, a gold-inlaid piece from the Ur region, the legendary birthplace of Abraham. Other missing items include ancient stone carvings of kings and princesses, as well as ceramic urns and bowls. All date back at least 2,000 years and some more than 5,000 years.

Sommerfeld believes the current international hunt for antiquities looted from the Baghdad museum and other institutions should be widened into a worldwide search for all of the antiquities stolen in recent years. He said the UN's cultural organization, UNESCO, should take measures to protect the sites of cities dating to the Sumerian and Babylonian eras.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, these sites have been easy targets for thieves, who use not only shovels but even bulldozers in their search for loot. He said some use trucks to haul away what they find.

"Iraq has been systematically plundered for more than 10 years. Particularly the rich, antique cities of the Sumerian and Babylonian eras, which stand on open land in the south of Iraq, are unprotected. In February, I saw for myself the damage done by such illegal excavations. It looks like a moon landscape. It is unbelievable what is being excavated there without interference by the authorities," Sommerfeld said.

UNESCO is expected to send a team of experts to Baghdad this week to begin assessing the damage done by looters at the Iraqi National Museum. One of its tasks will be to begin work on a catalog of artifacts known to have been looted, which will be circulated worldwide. It is not known whether the UNESCO team will also examine the looting in the south of the country cited by Sommerfeld.

German experts say they are not optimistic they will find many of the stolen treasures. They recall that of the 4,000 cultural treasures looted in the first Gulf War, only 40 have been officially located.