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Iraq: Most Museum Treasures Found Intact Despite Reports Of Looting

  • Charles Recknagel

Archaeological experts have completed their first inventories of what was taken from the antiquities collection of the Baghdad National Museum. The good news is that the losses are not as great as earlier feared. Of the museum's 8,000 most significant items, fewer than 50 were lost to professional art thieves and mobs of looters. The rest were successfully hidden by curators.

Prague, 11 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the days immediately after U.S. forces took Baghdad, the world was shocked to learn of what appeared to be the wholesale looting of Baghdad's National Museum of Antiquities.

Initial reports talked of mobs of looters racing through the museum's corridors and making off with its world-class collection of artifacts. The antiquities -- painstakingly gathered over decades of excavations -- included statues, vases, and cuneiform tablets from the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian periods, to name just a few of Mesopotamia's ancient civilizations.

Later reports added more disturbing details. The UN cultural agency, UNESCO, made a preliminary estimate that concluded 2,000 to 3,000 objects were missing. Art experts also revealed that some of the pieces were stolen not by uninformed looters but by professional gangs of thieves who knew exactly what they were after and contracted people in Baghdad to get them.

Chiara Dezze-Bardeschi, an archaeologist in the division of cultural heritage for Iraq at UNESCO, describes the condition of the Baghdad Museum in the aftermath of the looting: "UNESCO carried out the first assessment mission at the end of May. It was a first assessment of the condition of the museum. The damage inflicted to the gallery collections [included not only] looted objects but also objects smashed over on the floor."

But now, after so much bad news, continuing inventories of just what was stolen show that the losses may not be as great as first feared.

In recent days, a team of investigators from the U.S. Customs Service confirmed that some 2,000 to 3,000 pieces are, indeed, missing from the museum but that most of the best objects were kept safe by the museum's curators.

The U.S. Customs Service said 47 notable pieces were lost out of a total of some 8,000 particularly prized objects held by the museum before the Iraq war. The total museum collection numbers some 170,000 pieces, but many are repetitious, including vast quantities of cuneiform tablets used by ancient Mesopotamian states for record keeping.

The new assessment of the Baghdad Museum's losses comes as the museum's curators are gradually telling the story of how they secured their most valuable pieces long before the U.S.-led invasion of the country. The arrival of U.S. troops in Baghdad sparked days of disorder that gave looters and art thieves ample opportunities to steal.

Donny George, director-general of research and study of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities, told reporters in Baghdad that a secret vault was used to house many of the museum's best statues and figurines. He refused to reveal the vault's whereabouts but said that the pieces inside it are "all safe and sound."

He also said museum staff members had taken some of the more valuable items home with them for safekeeping during the war and now are returning them.

At the same time, museum officials and members of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority have confirmed that a separate collection of antiquities whose whereabouts had been kept hidden for a decade is also intact and safe in an Iraqi Central Bank vault.

That collection is the so-called Treasure of Nimrud -- more than 600 pieces of gold jewelry from the height of the Assyrian civilization in 800 B.C. -- which was hidden by Iraqi authorities before the 1991 Gulf War. There had been fears that members of Saddam Hussein's family might have made off with the treasure, along with large amounts of hard currency, when the government fell two months ago.

Still, if not as much was stolen as originally feared, the losses from the Baghdad Museum remain substantial.

Dezze-Bardeschi says that among the missing pieces is the famous Vase of Warka -- a three-foot alabaster relief sculpture from the earliest times of recorded history.

"The Warka vase -- Warka is the ancient [Sumerian city of] Uruk -- is dated around 3,000 B.C. It is a vase with representation of ceremonies dedicated to a goddess," Dezze-Bardeschi said.

The vase, on which are depicted priests, goats, and grain, is often pictured in introductory art history books.

Also missing is the famous Lady of Warka -- sometimes called the Warka Face or Warka Mask -- which is one of the world's oldest naturalistic sculptures of a woman's face. The marble sculpture dates back to about 3,000 B.C.

These pieces are now likely to make their way into some illegal private collection at a huge profit for the thieves who stole them. Art lovers can only hope that perhaps one day they will be recovered by police. Or, perhaps generations from now, they may be returned to a museum by some future owner who recognizes they belong to the world and should not be hidden.

The Baghdad Museum is now cleaning up the extensive damage from its looting and is planning to partially re-open as early as next month. Meanwhile, its staff is continuing to painstakingly pore through collection records to fully account for what remains and what has disappeared.

The Baghdad National Museum of Antiquities has one of the most extensive collections of Mesopotamian works in the world. Other major collections are kept in the British Museum and the Louvre in Europe and in museums in the U.S.