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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the May 28, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Where did all the treasures go? A looting update.
Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of Unesco (the U.N.
cultural agency), surprised many when he announced in April that the
market in the illicit trafficking of cultural goods is enormous. "At
an estimated $5 billion per year, it is probably second only to the
annual estimated amount involved in the trafficking of drugs,"
In the wake of the heavy losses to Iraq’s cultural treasures, notably
in Baghdad, Mosul, and Tikrit, 30 leading experts met almost immediately,
on April 17, at Unesco’s Paris headquarters to begin surveying the
Iraq war damage. The question on everyone’s mind was why the museum
was not protected when coalition troops entered Baghdad.
Donny George, director of research at the Baghdad Museum, told a follow-up
meeting at the British Museum on April 29 that he considered the damage
not just a loss to the Iraqi people but to the whole of mankind.
"The looting was the crime of the century," he told representatives
of the world’s leading museums.
The U.S. took action and on Friday, May 16, Marine Colonel Matthew
Bogdanos, leader of a team of military and civilian investigators
of the Baghdad Museum loss and recovery efforts, told a Department
of Defense briefing that "the originally reported number of 170,000
was a gross, if dramatic, exaggeration.
"The staff had previously emptied the display cases, thus, of
the 451 display cases in the galleries themselves, only 28 were broken.
Many artifacts were moved to other locations, while larger statues
and friezes were left on the gallery floor, either covered with foam
padding or laid on their sides. Of these, 42 pieces or exhibits were
stolen," he said.
Of these original 42 pieces or exhibits, nine were recovered in the
first 25 days of the investigation, he reported; just 33 are still
missing. The most "notable and lamentable" losses, in the
team’s opinion, are the Sumerian Sacred Vase of Warka from 3000 B.C.,
and the Bisetti Statue from 2300 B.C. In addition, 15 other pieces
were damaged, notably, the Golden Harp of Ur (although its golden
head had previously been removed to a bank vault).
Since other news sources report "more than 600 pieces from the
museum have been recovered of the thousands estimated to have been
stolen," it is unclear whether "42 pieces or exhibits"
were Baghdad’s only major losses.
Bogdanos did confirm the rumor that distressed museum staffers had
hidden some art works at a secret location, not yet revealed to museum
professionals or investigators — to be revealed only upon the
installation of a new Iraqi government. "Members of the museum
staff have told us that they have sworn on the Koran not to reveal
the location of that secret place," he said.
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