Recovering History

October 1, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: In recent days, authorities in Baghdad announced the recovery of a 5,000-year-old Sumerian mask. Made of alabaster, it is known as “The Lady of Warka,” one of the earliest known representations of the human face. The mask was widely considered one of the most important objects still missing after the looting of the Iraqi museum last April. Investigators have now issued a final report of their work, documenting the recovery of thousands of items. They say about 10,000 objects are still missing, including 29 major pieces considered irreplaceable.

I’m joined now by the man who has headed the investigation, Marine Reserve Colonel Mathew Bogdanos. Later this month he returns to civilian life, where he’s an assistant district attorney in New York. Colonel, welcome back to the United States and back to this program.

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you near the end of your part of the work, give us an overview assessment of where things stand.

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: Certainly, and with a nod to Mr. Churchill, we are not at the end of the investigation or even at the beginning of the end. We are perhaps, though, at the end of the beginning. The first phase is complete, and that first phase consisted of identifying primarily what was taken, and then recovering those items that we could do so locally in and around Baghdad. We’re transitioning now to the next phase, which is the international component to the investigation, which will take far longer than the six months that the first phase did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there are some remarkable stories I’ve heard about how you’ve gotten back some of these things. Tell us, for example, about the “Lady of Warka” that I just mentioned.

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: The mask itself… in many ways the manner in which it was recovered is very typical of the manner in which we recovered many items. An informant, an individual, an Iraqi, walked into the museum with a tip that he knew where antiquities were being held or hidden, without identifying the mask. Acting on that information, members of the investigation who are still in Baghdad then went to that location, conducted a reconnaissance of the location, and then conducted a raid.

Initially they didn’t find the mask, but they found the owner of the farm– it’s a farm in northern Baghdad– and after interviewing the farmer, he admitted that he did in fact have an antiquity, in this case the mask, buried in the back of his farm. The investigators went behind the farm and uncovered the mask exactly where he had placed it, and it is intact and undamaged. The one thing I want to point out here as well is that the farmer indicated that this mask had changed hands many times in the last several months, and would have been out of the country already but for the publicity that the theft and the recovery investigation has been receiving. So for fear of being intercepted in transit, they kept the mask in and around Baghdad.

JEFFREY BROWN: So a lot of your work has been classic investigative type of work. You’re gathering information from sources, you’re conducting raids, getting back what you can.

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: Yes. In many ways what I was doing and what the team was doing in Baghdad was exactly what I would do in conducting a search warrant in Manhattan, in my civilian job. The difference is, you’re doing it in a combat environment, and you have to factor in the possibility that when an informant brings you information, that that informant might be leading you into an ambush.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s still a very dangerous place to work.

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: It’s still a very dangerous place to work, but the rewards are so worthwhile that we were willing to take the chance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there are some remarkable pieces that are still missing. We have some photos of a few of them. We could show them now. This is the statue.

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: It’s a wonderful piece, an Acadian piece, weighs about 160 kilos, and it is the base of the statue itself. That was taken during the looting period, and indeed, the individuals who took that damaged the floor, not realizing how heavy it was. It dropped to the floor, and they actually scraped the floor as they dragged it out of one of the doors.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have another one. It’s the “Nubian Boy with a Lion.” Can we see that one?

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: Wonderful ivory. This is much smaller, a very small piece, and it is, in fact, a lion with a Nubian boy. We consider this one of the most significant pieces that is still missing.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what is going on now to recover these and other objects?

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: Well, when we spoke last, we spoke about the fact that the methodology for the investigation itself is divided into three separate components. The looters, or the items that were looted, those have been the items that have been recovered locally in Baghdad through informants, through the amnesty program, through seizures and raids. Virtually all of the looted items, about 2,700 altogether, have been recovered, but what remains are the items that were taken by insiders or with insider information, and then those high-quality or high-end items, and the only way we’re going to recover those is through good, classic law- enforcement techniques that cut across national borders. We have got to do this internationally or we can’t be successful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you’ve created a wanted poster?


JEFFREY BROWN: We have an image of that. Tell us about the idea behind that.

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: Well, the idea behind that was a bunch of us sitting in Baghdad, talking about what we can do to educate the world, educate law-enforcement officers, to educate civilians, to educate art dealer employees throughout the world on the most important items, much like a wanted poster for a criminal. “Have you seen this person? If you’ve seen this person, contact the authorities.” Well, we simply decided to put, instead of “person,” to put the antiquities in there, and the goal is to distribute these posters throughout the international art and law- enforcement communities throughout the world in order to get people to provide us information for items they may have seen, either in transit or in their bosses’ gallery.

JEFFREY BROWN: Publicity has made a real difference in this, hasn’t it?

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: Publicity has been what I would call, in marine terminology, a force multiplier. It has been one of our biggest assets, the fact that you and your colleagues are continuing to keep this, the looting and the recovery, in the public eye has helped us immeasurably.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as you finish your work here, are the resources in place? Is the personnel there? Is the will there to continue the investigative work?

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: You’ve hit on the greatest challenge we have. We live in a world of finite resources, everybody– the UK, the U.S., Jordan, Italy, Iraq– and in a world of finite resources, you have to make tough decisions, tough decisions based on priorities. We have received, the investigation has received enormous assistance from Scotland Yard, for example, or from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, from Jordanian officials from the Italian Carabinieri, but we need more, and what we need are agencies like Interpol to assist us, to take an active part in the investigation so that when a seizure is made anywhere, everyone knows it.

If there’s a seizure made in Newark, it’s crucial that we immediately… the customs inspectors who make that seizure notify the originating customs officials. If it’s London, then London needs to be notified immediately so they can conduct a simultaneous investigation on their end as we conduct one in the U.S. on our end, and there’s no other way to conduct this investigation properly but through seamless cooperation and integration.

JEFFREY BROWN: A brief final personal question: What makes you so passionate about this? We were talking earlier about the fact that you have a master’s in classical studies, so I know you’ve been at this for a long time as an interest. But we’re talking about stone, we’re talking about old clay, we’re talking about objects, but you clearly have a passion for it.

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: Since the age of 12, classical history has absolutely mesmerized me, more so because it is not my chosen profession, more so because I’m not smart enough or talented enough in that field to really have made that a career. I mean, we’re talking about our history, our heritage, our cultural beginnings. I mean, those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat its mistakes. The past is what we have. It’s what we bring with us into the future. I can’t imagine a more important undertaking.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, good luck to you in your return to civilian life, and thanks again for joining us.

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: Well, thank you very much, and again, thank you for having me.