Raiders of the Lost Art: The inability of the American military to prevent the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the early stages of the war in Iraq constituted, to many critics around the world, nothing less than aiding and abetting the plunder of the cradle of civilization.
With cross-cultural sensitivity presumably in mind, the White House wasted little time in April in parking a tank platoon in the museum compound and tapping Marine reserve Colonel Matthew Bogdanos to head up the investigation into the fate of the looted antiquities. The colorful Bogdanos, a homicide prosecutor for the New York City District Attorney’s Office who was called up to active duty after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, may be best remembered for his tenacious prosecution of Sean “Puffy” Combs during the rap impresario’s trial on weapons and bribery charges. He also happens to hold a master’s degree in classical studies from Columbia University, and has been known to wax sentimental about ancient bronze bowls and sculptures in bas-relief.
In an exhaustive September 10 press briefing at the Pentagon, available online at www.defenselink.mil, Bogdanos presents his interim report on the investigation, a treasure trove of mind-boggling minutiae, local lore and some good old-fashioned sleuthing.
“The reality,” he warns from the outset, “is that five months into the investigation, we still do not have a complete inventory of precisely what is missing.”
What is not missing, he reports, are more than 1,700 items returned under a “no questions asked” amnesty program, roughly 900 artifacts recovered in targeted raids in Iraq and some 750 pieces seized at checkpoints, airports and international border crossings.
Also accounted for are numerous items removed from the museum by proactive staff members before the war. Among them are 337 boxes filled with 39,453 “manuscripts, parchment, vellum and the like,” which were hidden in a bomb shelter in western Baghdad. The local Iraqis guarding the bounty balked at returning the boxes, according to Bogdanos, because of the close ties museum officials held with the Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party.
“They asked us to allow them, as a matter of honor, to keep those items in the bomb shelter, with their promise that they would provide a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week neighborhood community watch,” he reports. “To this day, they do that, and to this day, those items are safely kept in that bomb shelter, under the watchful protection of that community watch.”
Also under local protection are 179 boxes containing 8,366 priceless artifacts from the museum’s display cases, which museum staff spirited away weeks before the outbreak of hostilities. It took “weeks of trust-building and more tea than I can count,” Bogdanos recounts, before the investigative team was shown the hidden treasures, because “five senior museum staff members had sworn on the Koran not to reveal the location of the secret place.”
As for the tens of thousands of items that remain missing, Bogdanos warns — albeit a bit academically — that tracking down the lost loot requires a multifaceted approach: “The differentiation among the different dynamics at play here offers an analytical basis upon which to fashion a methodology to recover the items.”
His strategy breaks down the investigation into three areas. To recover items taken during random looting by local Iraqis, he reports, community outreach programs and local informants are being developed. To locate the more valuable, more recognizable objects, a more covert approach is being utilized.
“Because they have a far more limited market,” he explains, “one of the primary ways to recover these items would be through identifying and monitoring the buyers, and by continuing to develop confidential sources within the art smuggling community, just like we would in the drug smuggling community, in order to track, recover and return these pieces.”
And for those small objects that might not be immediately recognizable as looted antiquities — including some 10,000 cylinder seals, pins, beads, amulets and pendants, which together could fit into one large backpack —Bogdanos says he is doing just about the only thing he can do: getting the word out.
“The goal here is simple,” he explains, in language that would make his commander in chief proud. “I want a Chilean border official, a Lithuanian customs official or an Okinawan police officer to see an item, recognize it as a cylinder seal, say very simply, ‘You shouldn’t have that. It’s stolen from the Iraq museum in Baghdad, and you are under arrest.’”