Pieces of History: National Museum of Iraq

April 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: First there were tears… (people crying out) …and then anger, as the deputy director of the national museum of Iraq screamed at the last of the vandals. (Yelling) Sadness, recriminations and now a full-scale international recovery effort have marked the week since the lootings took place. The story of the Baghdad Museum has become a major focus of the aftermath of the Iraq war.

JOHN RUSSELL, Massachusetts College of Art: I’ve been trying to think of another example where 10,000 years of human history has been erased at a moment, and I can’t think of anything. So many cultures. So much time. So much of our past.

JEFFREY BROWN: One among a number of archeologists and art historians familiar with the museum is John Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art.

JOHN RUSSELL: It was world-class; it was a major collection by any standard, and for what it was, it was the only complete collection on earth.

JEFFREY BROWN: The museum housed artifacts excavated from Iraq’s thousands of ancient sites, the remains of the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and many others who made this the “cradle of civilization.” The world’s first cities, first writing, first codes of law.

JOHN RUSSELL: What we have here are the people of the city of Uruk, around 3000 B.C., Growing things– crops and produce.

JEFFREY BROWN: Using rare catalogues, John Russell showed us some of his favorite objects from the museums, including this vase.

JOHN RUSSELL: Showing the first image of a cult scene of a religious progression.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday in Baghdad, Donny George of the Iraqi Antiquities Department was showing reporters the same item as one among the missing.

DONNY GEORGE: Nothing else like it in the whole world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Early reports said more than 170,000 artifacts were taken or destroyed, but a full accounting continues. Some prized possessions may have been hidden in vaults not violated by the looters. What has become clear to experts is that at least some of the looting was well-organized, probably by international syndicates outside the country working with Iraqis within.

DONNY GEORGE: They have passed by the copy, the Egyptian copy of the black obelisk that we have, so this means that they knew what they wanted. There must have been specialists.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Paris yesterday, leading international experts gathered under the auspices of UNESCO, the U.N.’S cultural agency.

McGUIRE GIBSON, Archeologist, University of Chicago: It looks as if part of that looting is a deliberate planned action and that they had… they were able to obtain keys from somewhere for the vaults and were able to take out the very important, the very best material.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, there have been hints of a possible inside job, undertaken either by low- level museum employees or by people close to Saddam Hussein, though so far no hard evidence has surfaced. What is known, archeologist John Russell told us, is that a black market for antiquities grew out of the first Gulf War in 1991, when there was looting at regional museums around the country.

JOHN RUSSELL: That decade in between, Iraq developed, sadly, a looting and smuggling network. So there is organized crime for antiquities theft and smuggling in Iraq, and I would be very surprised if those groups weren’t eagerly awaiting the moment that the museum was unprotected. For major pieces, I think you’d almost have to imagine that there’s a group of potential buyers out there, possibly even people who had placed orders for these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean it’s possible that collectors may have placed orders on specific items?

JOHN RUSSELL: Not the majority. But for some collectors, it’s a dream. You go through the catalog, pick the pieces you want and then wait for the opportunity.

JEROME EISENBERG, Royal Athena Gallery: Here, for example, is a Babylonian sword that dates roughly 1200 to 800 B.C.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is, of course, a very open antiquities market worldwide. A leading American dealer is Jerome Eisenberg, owner of the Royal Athena Gallery in Manhattan, who showed us some of his near-eastern pieces.

JEROME EISENBERG: Right now, it’s an all-points alarm. The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, of which I’m a founding member, sent out an all-points bulletin just hours after this happened, alerting all the dealers that no pieces should be purchased from the Mesopotamian period or from Iraq without demonstrably good provenance. In other words, if you don’t know who you’re dealing with, and you don’t know where the pieces came from, stay far away.

JEFFREY BROWN: To the extent that any or some part of this was organized looting by people who know what they were going after, can you ever really stop the movement of this material?

JEROME EISENBERG: It would be really difficult. You have, as with any trade in the world, enough wealthy people that don’t care about source that would buy objects. I’m sure you’d have a given market in, let’s say, South America or Japan; there are people that would relish a major work of art hidden away in their own house, in their own home. It’s a big problem. But I don’t think any respectable dealer would want to trade on any of this material.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said respectable.

JEROME EISENBERG: There are always two or three rotten eggs in every barrel.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Paris yesterday, the University of Chicago’s McGuire Gibson said he had unverified reports that objects had already shown up in Iran, Paris and elsewhere in Europe. And UNESCO’s director general called for a U.N. resolution imposing a temporary embargo on all trade in Iraqi antiquities. Finally, there are the continuing questions about whether the U.S. could or should have prevented the looting in the first place. Museum officials claimed they had begged for protection as the looting began.

SPOKESMAN: This guy went there, and there was an Arabic translator with them. He begged them to come and to protect the Iraq museum.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several marines reportedly did come briefly. When they left, the looting resumed.

JOHN RUSSELL: The danger of looting of the museum in Baghdad was as sure as the sun rising every morning. There could be no question that museum would be a target of looting, based on the fears of the antiquities department, their experience with these looters, and the very well- publicized experience after the ’91 war. There was no question it was going to happen unless the museum was protected and we tried very hard, a number of scholars all over the world, to convey that to the Defense Department.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the military appears to have been very sensitive to the need to avoid bombing archeological sites, including the museum. But after Baghdad was entered and taken, there was chaos on the streets. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld responded to criticisms earlier this week.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Looting is an unfortunate thing. It happens and it’s unfortunate. And to the extent that it can be stopped, it should be stopped. To the extent it happens in a war zone, it’s difficult to stop. But to try to lay off the fact of that unfortunate activity on a defect in a war plan, it strikes me as a stretch.

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent days, Rumsfeld and other top officials have publicly discussed a reward or amnesty program for those who return objects, something many are calling for as a necessary and immediate step. No formal program has yet been announced. Yesterday, FBI Director Robert Mueller said his agency is now taking action.

ROBERT MUELLER: These steps include sending FBI agents to Iraq to assist with criminal investigations, issuing Interpol alerts to all member nations regarding the potential sale of stolen Iraqi art and artifacts on both the open and the black markets, and then assisting with the recovery of any such stolen items.

JEFFREY BROWN: And today, Interpol, the international police organization, said it too was sending a team to Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: Given the international attention now and given the promise of action by governments, is there any reason for hope looking ahead?

JOHN RUSSELL: I’m hopeful that eventually pieces will be recovered. But I need to be perfectly clear: What I’m talking about are the people of the past. I’m talking about the loss of 10,000 years of humans. The museum for me is not a collection of pretty objects, though it is that, but a collection of a great archive of the people who touched those objects, who created them, who were found with them. That’s what was housed there, and that’s what’ll be gone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another part of Iraq’s rich cultural past was also damaged this week, when the national library was ransacked and burned. Among its treasures were books and manuscripts from throughout Islamic history.