Art and Archaeology News
You are in:  Home > Art > News   •  Archives   •  send page to a friend

U. S. Concludes Investigation of Looting of the
Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad

By Colonel Matthew Bogdanos

WASHINGTON, D.C. , 25 September 2003—As 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 prosecution.

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.

Foremost 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.

Sumerian woman from Warka
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 vaults—and 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 sufficient.

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 since.

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.

For 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 pieces—each 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.

From the 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 Hassuna.

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 pieces—jars, vessels, pottery shards, statuettes and the likel—were stolen, of which 2,449 have been recovered, and 254 remain missing.

It 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 passed.

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 garage.

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 storage procedures.

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 keys.

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.

However, 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.

It 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.

Thus, 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 valuable items.

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.

Virtually 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 evidentiary trails.

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.

The 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.

Turning 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.

The 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.

We have also used other available tools, such as Web sites. We've chosen the most influential websites in the world—the FBI, Customs, State Department, Interpol and the Art Loss Registry—and they have all been tremendously cooperative in updating their Web sites to show what items are missing, what items are recovered.

To 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 well.

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 communities.

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 the—their 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.

Three 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.

It 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.

The 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.

The 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 Columbia University.

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/



If you value this page, please tell a friend or join our mailing list.

[ email to Art & Archaeology | Back to Art & Archaeology | Back to Culturekiosque homepage ]



Copyright © 1996 - 2003 Culturekiosque Publications, Ltd. All rights reserved.