By Colonel Matthew Bogdanos
D.C. , 25 September 2003As we all recall, in mid-April of
this year, it was widely reported that over 170,000 artifacts had been
stolen or looted from the museum in Baghdad. After fierce fighting,
U.S. forces finally secured the area surrounding the museum, and on
the 16th of April, a tank platoon was positioned on the museum
compound to prevent any further damage. From the outset, the primary
goal of this investigation has been the recovery of the items, the
missing and stolen antiquities, and not necessarily criminal
The methodology was tailored accordingly, and it
comprised four components. First was to determine precisely what was
missing. Second was to disseminate photographs of those missing items
to the international law enforcement and art communities to aid in
interdiction and confiscation. Third was to initiate community
outreach with religious and community leaders and enlist your aid as
well as theirs in promoting an amnesty or no-questions-asked policy.
And finally, to develop leads ion the Baghdad community and then
conduct raids based on that information on targeted locations.
among the challenges has been to determine precisely what is missing.
In part, this is because of the sheer size of the museum's collection.
In part, it is also because the museum has not only cataloged items,
but items from excavation sites throughout the country that have not
yet been cataloged. And finally, it was because of the museum's
antiquated manual and incomplete inventory system prior to the war.
The reality is that after five months into the
investigation, we still do not have a complete inventory of precisely
what is missing. We can, however, make some findings based on what we
know about the inventory today. The inventory is being completed on a
daily basis, with the help of American, British and Italian
archeologists and museum specialists.
The second component
to the investigation so far has been the dissemination of photographs
of the missing items. That, too, has proven problematic, largely
because many of the items simply didn't have photographs, or if there
were photographs, they were of poor quality; or they were frequently
destroyed during the looting. We have, however, disseminated
photographs to the international law enforcement and art communities,
and where a photograph did not exist, we provided photographs of
virtually identical or similar items. The goal here was simply to make
the stolen items as recognizable as possible throughout the world.
Recovered white marble head of a Sumerian woman from Warka,
datable to 3100 BC
The third component and really the heart of the investigation so far
has been the amnesty, or "no questions asked," policy.
Towards this end, the team has met with local Imams and community
leaders, who have assisted this investigation tremendously by
communicating the policy of amnesty throughout Baghdad and throughout
Iraq so that individuals can return items without any fear of
retribution or criminal prosecution.
To date over 1,700
items have been returned pursuant to the amnesty program [but] there
have been problems here, as well. Specifically, the problems were the
perception among the Iraqi people of the museum staff's identification
and association with the former regime and the Ba'ath Party. Time and
time again when individuals would turn property over, they would make
it clear that they were turning the property over to the U.S. forces
for safekeeping until a lawful Iraqi government could be elected.
The fourth and final component of this investigation
involves raids and seizures. They have also borne fruit. The raids on
targeted locations in Iraq based on information given to us by Iraqis
have resulted in the recovery of over 900 separate artifacts. This
simply would not have been possible without the overwhelming support
received from and the mutual sense of trust developed with the Iraqi
people in and around Baghdad.
Seizures at checkpoints,
airports and international border crossings have proven equally
successful, largely as a result of the dissemination of the
photographs of the items. So far, over 750 artifacts have been
recovered in four different countries.
Years before Iraqi
freedom, most of the gold and jewelry that was kept at the museum was
removed to the Central Bank of Iraq. It was moved in 21 separate
boxes. Sixteen of those boxes contained the royal family collection of
gold and jewelry, approximately 6,744 pieces, placed in one of the
underground vaults of the central bank. A second set of five boxes
contained the fabled Treasure of Nimrud and the original golden bull's
head from the Golden Harp of Ur.
The vaults themselves were
flooded prior to the team's arrival in Baghdad, but with the
assistance of Mr. Jason Williams and his National Geographic crew, we
pumped out the water[it] took three weeks to pump out the water
from the underground vaultsand ultimately [we] were able to gain
entry into the vaults. And in a moment that can only be characterized
as sheer joy, we opened each of those boxes and found the treasure of
Nimrud completely there, intact.
Months before the war, the
staff moved all of the manuscripts from the museum in 337 boxes,
totalling 39,453 manuscripts, parchment, vellum and the like. They
moved it to a bomb shelter in western Baghdad. On April 26th, we
located that bomb shelter and began to arrange for the return of those
items to the museum.
The members of the community, when we
went there, grew concerned about returning those items of the museum,
again, because of the identification with the Ba'ath Party. And 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. 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.
Weeks before the war, the staff moved 179 boxes containing
8,366 of the more priceless artifacts from the display cases in the
museum itself. They moved those items to a secret place, and you
[Pentagon press corps] will recall that on May 16th, when I last spoke
to you, we had not learned the location of this secret place, because
the five senior museum staff members had sworn on the Koran not to
reveal the location of the secret place.
After weeks and
months of developing and building a trust with the museum staff, we
were able to gain access to the secret place on June 4. And when we
did, we found that all 179 boxes were present and all of their
contents accounted for. Those items have been returned to that secret
place and will be placed on display in the museum once the security is
As for the looting period itself, the evidence
shows the following:
On April 8, the last of the museum staff
left the museum. U.S. forces then became engaged in intense combat
with Iraqi forces that fought from the museum grounds and from a
nearby Special Republican Guard compound across the street. It was
during this period that the looting took place. It ended on April 12
when several museum staff returned to the museum. The keys to the
museum, that had previously been locked away in the director's safe in
the administrative offices, were gone and they've never been found
U.S. forces entered the compound on April 16, and we
began the investigation on April 22nd.
Turning now to the
losses. I stress, as I have for the last five months, that the loss of
a single piece of our shared heritage is an absolute tragedy. But it
is abundantly clear that the original number of 170,000 missing
artifacts was simply wrong. But again I stress, numbers simply cannot
tell the whole story, nor should they be the sole determinant used to
assess the extent of the damage or of the recovery itself.
example, it is simply impossible to quantify the loss of the world's
first known Samarian mask of a female deity. That's one number; you
cannot possibly quantify it, and it is irreplaceable. On the other
hand, a single clay pot recovered at an archeological site in 25
separate pieces, depending on the circumstances under which it is
recovered, counts as 25 separate pieceseach bead, each pin, each
amulet, each pendant counts as a separate piece. So numbers simply
cannot tell the whole story. They do, however, offer, used
appropriately, a metric with which we can assess what indeed has been
done, and what so far is being recovered.
And this is what
we found: In the administrative area, all of the offices were
ransacked. All of the equipment was stolen or destroyed. All of the
safes were emptied or destroyed. Fires were lit throughout the museum.
We saw the same level of destruction in the administrative offices
that we saw in presidential palaces and buildings identified with the
former regime throughout Iraq.
Turning to the public
galleries, however, one doesn't see anywhere near that level of
destruction. The staff, as I mentioned, had previously emptied all of
the display cases. So, of the 451 display cases, only 28 of them were
damaged. All of them had been emptied. Those items that were too large
to be moved by the museum staff were covered with foam padding and
laid on their sides in order to prevent any damage.
galleries themselves, 40 pieces or 40 exhibits were stolen, most
notably among those, the famous Bassetki Statue from approximately
2300 B.C., and the Roman heads of Poseidon, Apollo, Nike and Eros.
Of the original 40 missing items, 10 have been recovered,
including the Sacred Vase of Warka, an exquisite white limestone
votive vase dating from approximately 3200 B.C., and arguably the most
significant piece possessed by the museum. While it was damaged during
the looting and during its theft, it should be noted that the vase was
returned on 11 June, pursuant to the amnesty program. It was in
exactly the same condition it was when it was found by German
archeologists at Al Samawa in 1940. In other words, there's no
additional damage, and this item, the sacred vase, can and will be
restored by the museum staff.
Also recovered during the
investigation is one of the oldest known bronze relief bulls, and my
favorite, two pottery jars from the 6th millennium B.C. from Tell
Unfortunately, 30 exhibits from the main gallery,
30 display-quality, irreplaceable pieces, are still missing from the
museum. Another 16 pieces were damaged, most notably, the Golden Harp
of Ur, although its golden bull's head, as I mentioned, had previously
been removed. And you can see the harp on the left there in three
pieces, and then you can see the golden bull's head. The Golden Harp
itself can also be restored.
Turning to the Heritage Room,
consisting of more recent scrolls and Islamic antique furniture and
fine porcelain, 236 pieces were originally stolen. We've recovered
164, which leaves 72 still missing.
Turning then to the
restoration and registration rooms, which were temporary storage
areas, we found 199 pieces originally missing, of which we've
recovered 118, leaving 81 still missing. It was in this room that the
Golden Harp of Ur and several delicate ivories were kept and
subsequently damaged during the looting.
The museum also, in
additional to the public galleries themselves, had eight storage
rooms. Of the eight, only five were entered, and only three had
anything missing. Because these rooms contain tens of thousands of
clay pots, pottery shards, copper and bronze weapons, tools,
statuettes and pieces, the inventory is simply not complete. It
contains items both from museum-sponsored excavations as well as from
internationally sponsored excavations. The inventory in these rooms
will take months to complete.
However, we can make several
findings, based on what we know now. The first- and second-level
storage rooms were looted but show no signs of [forced] entry on their
shared exterior doors. The keys to these doors were last seen in the
director's safe and are now missing.
Some shelves were
disturbed in the storage rooms. Boxes were turned upside down.
Contents were emptied on the floor.
In the two storage rooms
that I've just described, 2,703 excavation site piecesjars,
vessels, pottery shards, statuettes and the likelwere stolen, of
which 2,449 have been recovered, and 254 remain missing.
was in the second-floor storage room that the investigation discovered
evidence of its use as a firing or sniper position. The team found a
window slit broken open from the inside, with boxes pressed up against
the wall, placing the window opening at shooter's height. This
particular window is one of only two windows in the entire museum that
offers a clear field of fire onto the street that runs along the
western side of the museum and down which U.S. and coalition forces
Found near this window were RPG [rocket propelled
grenade] parts, an ammunition box, an AK- 47 magazine, grenade pouch
and a grenade that turned out to be a dud.
This finding of a
sniper position within the museum is consistent with the discovery of
a box of RPGs on the roof of the museum library and another box of
RPGs on the roof of the children's museum. This latter building, the
children's museum, a separate building in the compound, was the
building from which RPGs were fired at U.S. forces during the looting
period. These findings are also supported by the team's discovery of
more than 15 Iraqi Army uniforms and additional RPGs in the museum's
I point out that the investigation has uncovered no
evidence that any fighters entered the museum before the staff left on
April 8 and no evidence that any member of the staff assisted Iraqi
forces in entering the museum or in building the various fighting
positions found inside and surrounding the museum. There are actually
four additional fighting positions, two in front of the museum and two
in the back.
Turning to the basement-level storage room, on
the other hand, the evidence here strongly suggests not random
looters, as in the other magazines, but rather the evidence here
suggests thieves with an intimate knowledge of the museum and its
It is here, in the basement magazine,
that they attempted to steal the most traffickable and easily
transportable items stored in the most remote corner of the most
remote room in the basement of the museum. The front door of this
basement room was intact and unforced, but its bricked rear doorway,
accessed only through a remote, narrow and hidden stairwell, was
broken and entered. This storage area actually has four rooms, three
of which, containing tens of thousands of priceless pieces, were
simply not touched.
However, the fourth room was also
virtually untouched, except for one remote corner where 103 small
plastic boxes originally containing cylinder seals, loose beads,
amulets, small glass bottles and jewelry had been emptied, while
hundreds and hundreds of surrounding larger, but empty, cardboard
boxes were completely untouched. The thieves here had keys that had
previously been hidden elsewhere in the museum---- not the keys that
were in the museum director's safe---but a separate set of keys, as a
safety procedure. Hidden elsewhere in the museum, their location was
known to only several people in the museum. Whoever did this had those
These keys were to 30 storage cabinets that lined that
particular corner of the room. Those cabinets contained arguably the
world's finest collection of absolutely exquisite cylinder seals and
the world's finest collection of Greek, Roman, Islamic and Arabic gold
and silver coins.
Ironically, the thieves here appeared to
have lost the keys to those cabinets by dropping them in one of the
plastic boxes that lined the floor. There was no electricity at the
time in the museum during this period, so the thieves lit the foam
padding for light. After frantically and unsuccessfully searching for
the keys in the fire-lit room, breathing in the noxious fumes from the
foam and throwing those boxes in every direction, they were unable to
gain access to the storage cabinets.
We ultimately found the
keys under the debris after a methodically, fully lit and hours-long
search. Upon inspecting those cabinets, and opening each one with
absolutely bated breath, we learned that not a single cabinet had been
entered and a catastrophic loss narrowly averted.
the contents of the plastic boxes were taken by the thieves. While not
of the same caliber as the items in the storage cabinets, they were
nonetheless valuable in their own right. All together from those
boxes, there were 4,997 pins, beads, amulets and pendants, and 4,795
cylinder seals. An additional 500 smaller pottery pieces and bronze
weapons from the shelves were also taken. So, from this room alone,
10,337 pieces were stolen, of which, 667 have been recovered.
is from this room we also recovered a set of readable fingerprints.
Those fingerprints were sent to the FBI lab for comparison against all
known databases, to include all U.S. military forces. There are no
matches in the U.S. databases for those fingerprints. Members of the
staff who had immediate access to that storage room were also
fingerprinted and compared against those prints, and there are also no
matches. Those prints remain on file for future use.
in viewing the evidence as a whole, the antiquities stolen from the
museum appear to fall into three broad categories, strongly suggesting
three different dynamics at work in the theft.
First are the
40 exhibits stolen from the public galleries. Here the thieves were
clearly selective and discriminate in their choice of artifacts,
stealing the most valuable items, while bypassing copies and less
Second are the 3,138 pieces stolen from the
storage rooms on the first and second floors. The pattern here was
indiscriminate and random. Entire shelves were emptied, while adjacent
shelves were untouched. Entire shelves that had priceless antiquities
were untouched, while an adjacent shelf that had nothing but fakes
were taken and emptied. We found entire shelves or partial shelves
with arm sweeps through the dust on the shelf, as if they were
sweeping the items into a bag, and then we would find that very bag at
the end of the storage room, and the shelf next to that bag emptied,
as if they had seen something they liked better.
all of the items returned under the amnesty program come from these
rooms, or from neighborhood residents.
The third category,
the third dynamic at play here are the over 10,000 pieces from the
basement storage room. It is simply inconceivable that this area was
found, breached and entered, or that the unmarked keys were found by
anyone who did not have an intimate, insider's knowledge of the museum
and its storage practices in general, and of that corner of the
basement and the contents of those specific, unmarked, nondescript
cabinets in particular.
None of this separation into
different dynamics, is intended to suggest that there is not some
overlap among the categories. For example, the professional thieves,
that is those who knew what they were looking for in the public
galleries and took the display quality pieces, may very well have left
the doors open to the museum in the hope or expectation that
individuals would come in, engage in looting, thereby covering up any
Rather, the differentiation among the
different dynamics at play here offers an analytical basis upon which
to fashion a methodology to recover the items. Those items stolen by
looters, for example, are most likely to be recovered locally, in and
around Baghdad and throughout Iraq, through the amnesty program and
other community outreach programs, as well as through developing local
informants and conducting targeted raids. As I said, 99 percent of all
of the items that we've recovered in Iraq have come from this random
or indiscriminate looting of the two storage rooms.
higher value, more recognizable exhibits, on the other hand, demand a
different approach. Because they have a far more limited market, 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. Thorough border inspections and searches also
play a crucial role in interdicting these higher value items.
to the 10,000 smaller cylinder seals and pieces of jewelry stolen from
the basement, this requires a different approach. Because these items
are not necessarily and immediately recognizable as contraband or
evidence of criminality, the first goal must be the education of the
international, national and local law enforcement authorities in the
identification of these artifacts. Toward this end, we have gone to
London to brief Scotland Yard or the London Metropolitan Police, we
have briefed Interpol, we have briefed the U.S. Attorneys for New York
and New Jersey. We have briefed FBI, Customs and State Department, in
order to educate and disseminate all of this information, again, to
make these items as easily recognizable as possible.
goal here is simple. 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." And toward this end, we have been sharing all of
our findings with the international law enforcement community.
have also used other available tools, such as Web sites. We've chosen
the most influential websites in the worldthe FBI, Customs,
State Department, Interpol and the Art Loss Registryand they
have all been tremendously cooperative in updating their Web sites to
show what items are missing, what items are recovered.
further assist law enforcement by making these items so recognizable,
we have also prepared a poster of the 30 most significant missing
artifacts from the public galleries. These will be disseminated not
only to the law enforcement community but to the art community as
A second goal must be a greater level of cooperation
between the law enforcement and art communities. The reality is that
in order for these items to be sold profitably, they must be
authenticated by an acknowledged expert within the art community.
In order, therefore, to enlist the effective assistance of
the art world, we recently and at the invitation of the British Museum
presented the findings of this investigation to more than 300 of the
world's leading ancient Near Eastern archaeologist professors and
dealers, and provided them photographs of all items, toward that very
end: to ensure greater cooperation between the art and law enforcement
Indeed, I must commend the efforts of the staff
of the British Museum and Professors Al-Radi; Bahrani, from New York;
Henry Wright, from Michigan; and McGuire Gibson, from Chicago. They
have afforded us thetheir assistance, through their expertise,
and also showed the courage to go to Iraq, to go to Baghdad, to
conduct assessments, to assess the museum, to assess various
archaeological sites over the course of the last four and a half to
five months. Very simply, we get paid to be shot at. They do not, but
they went nonetheless, and they should be commended.
thousand, four hundred eleven items have been recovered. Of those,
about half, 1,731, have come from Iraqi citizens pursuant to the
amnesty or "no questions asked" policy. Again, most stress
their desire to turn these over as part of Iraqis' culture.
is not just Iraqis, however, who have responded to the call. On a
recent trip home on leave in Manhattan, I was contacted by an
individual who had learned of the investigation, through your efforts,
and told me he had something to turn over. A meeting was arranged,
package was turned over, and a 4,000-year-old Akhadian tablet is now
in the hands of the Iraqi museum, where it belongs.
remaining 1,679 items have been recovered as the result of sound law
enforcement techniques, from raids in Baghdad, to random car stops at
checkpoints throughout Iraq, to increased vigilance at international
borders. For example, over 400 pieces were returned by Dr. Ahmed
Chalabi after Iraqi National Congress forces stopped a car at a
checkpoint near Kut in southern Iraq. Altogether, 911 pieces have been
recovered in Iraq, while another 768 have come from numerous seizures
in Jordan, Italy, the U.K. and the U.S. Most recently and publicly, on
the 12th of August a journalist was arrested for smuggling into the
U.S., at JFK, three cylinder seals stolen from the museum.
majority of the work remaining, that of tracking down the missing
pieces, will likely take years. It will require the cooperative
efforts of all nations, to include legislatures, law enforcement
officers and art communities. The missing artifacts are indeed the
property of the Iraqi people, but in a very real sense, they are the
property, the shared property of mankind. I speak for all when I say
we are honored to have served.
Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a United States
Marine reservist, led the U.S. government's investigation into the
theft and looting of the Iraq National Museum.
Before being called to
active duty after the September 11th attacks, Col. Bogdanos was a
homicide prosecutor for the New York City District Attorney's Office.
He holds a law degree and a master's degree in classical studies from
This is an abridged transcript of a Pentagon news
briefing Col. Bogdanos gave last week. The complete text of the
Pentagon press briefing on Iraqi antiquities is available online at
the United States Department of Defense:http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/