April 27, 2003

Looking back at the looting of Baghdad

Posted at 7:44 am in British Museum, Similar cases

Four articles look at different aspects of the looting of museums & archaeological sites in Iraq, whether similar things could happen in the west, & whether more steps could have been taken to anticipate it.

The British Museum has been eager to help the situation – which is to be welcomed, but at the same time is slightly odd behaviour, as so many of the museum’s own artefacts were acquired through similar situation in the past. Despite this fact though, they continue to maintain that what happened in the past was perfectly acceptable, but that what is happening now in Iraq is to be condemned.

Post Gazette

Looting of Baghdad treasures shines light on a ‘dirty business’
Sunday, April 27, 2003
By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Byzantine frescos of Lysi, painted in Cyprus, kidnapped to Germany and now staring down from the ceiling of a museum chapel in Texas, testify by their travels that the world views much of its cultural legacy through a catalog of stolen property.

For nine centuries, the frescos hung unmolested on a small chapel in Cyprus before being cut from the ceiling by Turkish looters during the 1974 war. Ten years later, a Houston foundation, working with the Cypriot Orthodox Church, saved them and installed them in the museum chapel, where they are an example of the moral ambiguity of the antiquities trade.

As the hunt for looted Iraqi antiquities continues, the debate over how best, or even whether, to share the art and artifacts of nations has divided scientists and collectors, archaeologists and museums, in an acrimonious debate over ethics, property law and cultural politics.

“It’s a dirty business, the antiquities trade,” said Jane Waldbaum, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, a scientific group that largely opposes the antiquities traffic. “They will say they only buy from reputable dealers. But where do they buy things from?”

Countered William Pearlstein, a Manhattan lawyer who represents museums and collectors: “What the archaeologists have trouble understanding is that we have a regulated market. In their view, even the most careful collector is still aiding and abetting tomb robbers.”

The intensifying bitterness of those divisions prevented the two sides from uniting in the days before the Iraq war, a time when each mounted separate and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to prevent the destruction of Iraq’s treasures.

Ulterior motives?

While members of the American Council on Cultural Policy, a 2-year-old organization of dealers, collectors and museum curators, met with both the Department of State and the Pentagon to map out plans to prevent the destruction of Iraq’s antiquities, the archaeological institute found itself on the outside. The two groups were unable to put together a joint statement.

“We wanted a statement that was more comprehensive and didn’t just address the bombing,” said Patty Gerstenblith, a DePaul University law professor who helped spearhead the institute’s efforts.

The archaeologists were “asleep at the switch,” complained Ashton Hawkins, former counsel for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a founder of the cultural policy council.

In the end, the council’s do-not-bomb list prevented destruction from the air, but neither Hawkins’ group nor Gerstenblith’s, was able to persuade commanders on the ground to station troops around the Iraqi museums or libraries that were stripped of treasures dating to 3000 B.C.

The State Department and Pentagon meetings with the cultural policy council gave rise to sometimes bizarre speculation about the government’s motives. Newspapers in Scotland and England published stories broadly suggesting the collectors were somehow hoping the Bush administration would loosen export controls in the wake of the Iraq invasion and suggested the looting could have been an outcome of that.

Gerstenblith, a critic of the cultural policy council, said she saw no ulterior motives in the council’s meetings with Pentagon and State.

“Their agenda is totally clean at these meetings,” Gerstenblith said. “A lot of people sort of overstated what happened.”

It was one of the few moments in which one side had kind words for the other.

Largely irrecoverable

To understand the views that divide the groups, the Church of Ayios Themonianos is an object lesson.

After looters cut the fresco from the ceiling of the 12th-century chapel, they hid the pieces in a Munich warehouse and put it on the black market for sale, piece-by-piece.

“The stuff was put up for ransom,” said James Demetrion, director of the de Menil collection, a Houston art museum that bought the fresco, conceded ownership to the Cypriot Orthodox Church, and installed it in a specially made chapel in Texas.

To do a good deed, the foundation rewarded thieves.

“I don’t think one would want to encourage ripping off places and holding things for ransom,” Demetrion said. “This was a very unusual circumstance.” The de Menil foundation and the Cypriot church must now, come 2012, renegotiate whether the frescos remain in Texas or go home to Cyprus.

The unsettling truth, say experts on both sides of the dispute over collecting, is that much of the world’s cultural storehouse has been expropriated by either force of arms or business deals in which some questions were never asked.

“What do you think the Louvre is?” said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Museum in Baltimore. “The ethical, moral imperative we feel now would have been absolutely foreign to Lord Elgin, absolutely foreign to Henry Clay Frick.”

One hundred years ago, when Elgin was shipping priceless Greek marbles to London and Frick was gathering up masterpieces from Europe, the trade in the cultural legacies of other nations was free-wheeling. When up for sale, artworks and antiques often came without an explanation for their source. When sold, they were largely irrecoverable.

That effort to recover the antiquities, whether still in the ground or secreted in the attic of a smuggler awaiting his moment to slip it onto the black market, is at the root of the debate between archaeologists and collectors.

Disdain of collectors

Vikan is one of three members who resigned from President Bush’s advisory council on cultural property to protest U.S. failure to stop the looting of Baghdad’s museums and libraries.

Collectors have argued that the acquisition of antiquities for museums spreads cultures and ideas freely. Archaeologists worry that even legal collecting, regulated in the United States since 1983 through a series of agreements with various nations, simply encourages the kind of looting that ravaged Baghdad this month.

Archaeologists largely object to the antiquities trade because, in their view, it disturbs important sites, makes it hard to understand the context of a culture, and, as demand heats up, encourages outright looting and robbery that destroy important artifacts and make it impossible to understand the culture in which looted objects were created.

“When you see things outside their historical context, you can’t do much except date them and appreciate their beauty,” said Samuel Paley, a professor of classics at State University of New York’s Buffalo campus.

“I would say, our law, as it relates to culture, really has a great deal of left-leaning. In other countries, there is no such disdain of institutional as well as private collectors by academia,” said Torkom Demirjian, whose Manhattan shop, Ariadne, deals in Mesopotamian antiquities.

Anger between the two sides can run deep.

“How about hatred? We respect them, they hate us,” said William Pearlstein, a lawyer who represents collectors and museums.

“What would happen if we stopped talking to them? What would happen if we stopped giving them information about the objects in their cases? That would be my personal gut reaction,” Paley said.

“That springs from this wonderful arrogance that academics have,” Vikan said. “There’s a lot of anger. The piety is really just quite amazing to me sometimes.”

Rift in the art world

Those two poles on the cultural globe emerged through centuries of changes in law, ethics and the standards of science. They happened at the same time a demand for antiquities grew, fueled by the interests of wealthy and usually educated collectors.

One example is Jay Kislak, a Florida banking millionaire whose enthusiasm for pre-Columbian artifacts from Central America resulted in one of the premier collections in the world.

“We are mostly in books and manuscripts and maps and documents,” Kislak said. “We are deeply involved in documents related to the early history of America.”

His foundation offers research grants to scholars, usually to study materials in his collection. His gallery is open Monday through Friday, and Kislak, a major donor to Republican causes, is slated to take a spot on the same presidential advisory committee Vikan quit in protest.

But a less-touted example of a collector and dealer is Frederick Schultz.

Schultz was a New York specialist in Egyptian and Middle Eastern antiquities who, as president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art, testified frequently before the President’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee, arguing against further restrictions on the trade in antiquities and art during the Clinton administration.

What committee members did not know at the time was that Schultz, according to later testimony at his trial, was receiving artifacts looted from archaeological sites outside Cairo, then sent to London by a British smuggler named Jonathan Tokeley-Parry.

Tokeley-Parry, testifying for the federal government, said he and Schultz created a false “provenance” — a history of ownership — for the items. On some occasions, he said, they dipped forged labels for the items into tea and then baked them to make them look old.

Schultz’s prosecution helped to define the rift in the art world when archaeologists and collectors took opposing positions on the point of law under which Schultz was prosecuted.

Making the right noises

The Archaeological Institute of America filed a friend of the court brief urging U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff to rule that the National Stolen Property Act applied in Schultz’s case.

Under that act, the items Schultz received could be classified as stolen because they were taken out of Egypt in violation of a 1983 U.S. law that declared all newly discovered artifacts national property.

Schultz’s own trade group, through lawyers who included Pearlstein, urged the court to grant Schultz a new trial, saying Rakoff should not have applied a 1979 ruling that allowed the stolen property act to be used in such cases where all that had been shown was that Schultz had handled objects that had been illegally exported from Egypt.

The appeal is pending and Schultz, reached at his New York home, declined comment.

The fake provenances created for the objects Schultz received could be a road map for investigators charged with keeping Iraqi war booty off the market.

To pass any items off as legitimate, they would need to have been taken out of Mesopotamia before the 1983 law under which the United States recognized Iraq’s claim to all artifacts on its soil as national property.

“You may see a lot of ‘old collections’ — collections that predate the Iraq law,” Waldbaum said.

Demirjian doesn’t expect anything to come to the United States.

“Nobody will ever touch any of these pieces with a 10-foot pole,” he said.

Demirjian has been burned by stolen antiquities, purchased openly at public auction.

“At one point, we owned a very beautiful mosaic with an image of Gorgon,” he said. “Several months later, we received an inquiry from U.S. Customs that a Greek museum had been broken into, and this mosaic was stolen, among many other pieces.”

A potential new conflict between scientist and collector is now shaping up in the archaeological institute’s proposal to create a database of all items now owned by museums and collectors — a “baseline” by which governments can be tipped off when looted Iraqi antiquities appear on the market.

Many collectors are disinclined to publicly declare what they own, sometimes from fear of being robbed.

“It becomes very difficult to tell which objects have legitimate backgrounds and which don’t,” the institute’s Gerstenblith said.

“Right now, a lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, we wouldn’t touch this stuff,’ ” Waldbaum said. “They’re making all the right noises.”

Tech Central Station

Iraq’s Dead Teacup
By Jackson Kuhl

Did war planners misjudge the value of Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities, a resource that in future tourism dollars (or dinars) was imaginably worth an oil well in itself? Probably. Yet soldiers may have arrived too late in any event. At Thursday’s UNESCO meeting to discuss the situation, McGuire Gibson, professor at Chicago University’s Oriental Institute, went on record theorizing the first wave of looting may have been inside work, perhaps by organized gangs. A story in the Telegraph already noted some museum vaults and safes were unlocked and opened rather than forced. CNN has reported that glass cutters were found amongst the wreckage, suggesting some looters were more discerning in their selection. Regime members may have been picking at the museum for years, much as 20th-Dynasty Egyptian priests methodically robbed the Valley of Kings to fund military campaigns.

Then came the mob, not always stealing – sometimes just smashing. Statues beheaded, pottery crushed, tablets broken. Accounts vary as to the involvement of U.S. troops. Some say they stood by impassively; others that they stayed to police the museum only to have looting begin again once they left. A guard at the museum numbered the crowd in the thousands, and even if that number is high, he also said many of them were armed with AK-47s. He pleaded with them to stop and received a snoot full of gun muzzle for his trouble. Archaeology magazine posts that supposedly items are already for sale in Tehran and – where else? – Paris. According to the DoJ, FBI agents are on their way to Iraq to investigate.

Most bizarre, however, has been Neil MacGregor’s call to “kill the market in looted antiquities with an international declaration along the lines of that by the Allied Powers in the Second World War about works of art sold in Nazi-occupied Europe.” MacGregor is the director of the British Museum, which probably houses the largest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside of Iraq. He’s also the same guy who back in February told the world that no way, no how, would the museum relinquish the Parthenon friezes known as the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Ever. Lord Elgin carted off the friezes to England while Greece was under Ottoman rule. Greece has been asking for their return ever since they won independence in 1830.

This follows on the heels of another statement, the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, issued in December by the directors of 19 museums worldwide, including the Met, the Guggenheim, MoMA, the Getty, the Louvre, the Prado, and the British Museum. The declaration stated that museum collections have become part of the patrimony of each museum’s nation, regardless of their land of origin, and signaled any repatriation will be on a “case-by-case” basis (read: difficult, arbitrary, and long). The value of these collections lies in their presence outside the culture of their genesis, thereby exposing a greater audience to it. Modern mores of how they were acquired – through colonialism, spoils of war, smuggling – do not apply. Yet the declaration also condemns modern looting. One would think that with language like, “The international museum community shares the conviction that illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic, and ethnic objects must be firmly discouraged,” at least one of the 19 directors would blush at the contradiction.

All ten of the American signatories to the declaration are members of the Association of Art Museum Directors. In 1998 the AAMD issued a report on “the unlawful confiscation of art that constituted one of the many horrors of the Holocaust,” and established a series of guidelines for returning art to their proper owners or heirs. Detail was paid to researching the provenance – that is, the paper trail of ownership – of works in member collections which were “created before 1946, transferred after 1932 and before 1946, and which were or could have been in continental Europe during that period.” Priority is to be given to European paintings and Judaica. If a particular work is discovered to be looted, then the AAMD guidelines insist full disclosure be made public and legitimate claims to the work be reviewed and resolved “in an equitable, appropriate, and mutually agreeable manner.”

Through the concourse of these statements, the museums are saying that looting is bad if it happened last week but good if it happened two-hundred years ago – and especially good if the results wound up in our collections. There is a point to be made in disseminating objects across the planet’s museums, one illustrated by the Baghdad carnage. The directors are right in that the worth and utility of some pieces is precisely in the fact they are outside their homeland. My own love of Egyptology gestated not in Egypt but inside the British Museum. But the British Museum and the rest would come off a lot less imperialistic if to maintain that virtue they were willing to buy, rent, or swap with nations of origin (though I imagine MacGregor would drop dead of an aneurysm at the thought of sending a portrait of Henry VIII or a dismantled Christopher Wren building to Nigeria in return for a few Benin Bronzes). In many cases looted artifacts and monumental art originate in countries that all too badly need the revenue such objects can generate through tourism.

Meanwhile MacGregor has suggested the British Museum may loan some of their Mesopotamian pieces to the new Iraq to help re-establish their collection. So the only way Greece may ever get the Elgin Marbles back is if the Greek people take to the streets and set fire to their own museums.

The mob ransack of the National Museum (and, for that matter, of the National Library and other repositories throughout Iraq) is a f*ck-up in an otherwise smoothly executed war, a loss to archaeology, cultural consciousness, and most of all in tourism opportunities from foreign travelers. But nothing is forever. The media lather over it is reminiscent to that in March 2001 when the Taliban went culture wilding across Afghanistan, destroying among other things the 3rd- and 6th-century Bamiyan Buddhas. The Western press was full of hand wringing and condemnations – even though the bulk of the destruction was to Greek and Islamic antiquities (the Taliban were Wahhabi purists, remember), a fact that received little mention.

Mostly silent, of course, were Buddhists themselves. One of the foundations of Buddhism is the impermanence of things. Tibetan monks will spend weeks carefully creating a sand mandala only to dump it into a lake upon completion. The Bamiyan Buddhas were a modern retelling of the Zen koan wherein a student accidentally breaks his master’s favorite antique teacup. When his master appears, the student asks him why people have to die. The elder replies that all things must die; everything only has so long to live. The student shows him the broken pieces and says, it was time for your teacup to die.

Jackson Kuhl writes about archeology, travel, and culture.

Washington Post

The Perils of Empire
The Sun Never Sets On the British Museum
By Sue Ellicott
Sunday, April 20, 2003; Page B05


Shortly before lunchtime on a recent sunny day in central London, the last few seats in the British Museum’s basement lecture theater were filling up fast. Students came in nibbling their sandwiches. A lady in a silk headscarf waved hello to a friend. Behind me, an elderly man in a green quilted vest of the kind worn by rural English spaniel owners was telling his wife about the bird life in their London garden that morning.

“I saw blackbirds and thrushes,” he said. “Crows were about, though.”

Displaying what in Britain passes for shock and awe, the wife absent-mindedly pulled a couple of twigs from his gray thatch of hair.

“Goodness,” she chided. “You’ve half the tree on you.”

If museum curator Dominique Collon noticed the foliage she was too polite to say so. Standing at her lectern dressed in a vintage emerald tapestry jacket from Uzbekistan, Collon began her talk about “Sumer, Babylon, Assyria and the Cradle of Civilization.” Up flashed a slide of the Fertile Crescent, where animal husbandry began 10,000 years ago and over which U.S. tanks rolled more recently.

“You probably don’t much need maps at this stage,” she said, and a rueful chuckle rippled through the audience. “You all know where Iraq is.”

It’s hard to persuade a Londoner to spend a lunch hour underground on a warm spring day. Except, it turns out, in wartime. And this war, with its graphic television images, has taught us that we British are, above all else, a nation of armchair archaeologists. All it took was for the BBC to start showing Iraqi machine-gun posts atop ancient tombs — perfect lookouts in a flat terrain — and viewers began bombarding the British Museum’s Department of the Ancient Near East with e-mails and telephone calls, desperate to know which “ziggurats,” or royal burial sites, might come under fire. Stricken, we recalled our old history lessons from sixth-grade: Iraq. The Cradle of Civilization. One giant open-air archaeological site. Help!

The museum’s response was history. Literally.

John Curtis, keeper of the department of the Ancient Near East, mobilized his version of a rapid response team, including Collon, a “world expert on cylinder seals,” or cork-shaped tablets of ancient writing from 3,500 B.C., to host a series of free public lectures and guided tours of its Mesopotamian and Assyrian galleries. Twice when I went it was standing-room only in the 150-seat lecture theater. One evening, I met a 7-year-old girl named Gemma, who had persuaded her mother to drive from their home in the countryside an hour away to hear the museum’s expert on ancient Babylon’s magic texts describe how to write cuneiform, the world’s oldest script, which originated in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. Tip: Wiggle a cut-off wooden popsicle stick into a lump of clay to make wedge shapes, but mind your chest-length beard and bow tie.

Last week, following the postwar looting of ancient treasures from Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, the number of visitors to the British Museum’s Ancient Near East galleries was up by about a third.

Collon thinks the British want historical facts about Iraq because the war made them “feel powerless,” and she is right. This does not mean people here are unmoved by the human costs of this war: They are appalled. But their fascination by what, before last week, they called “the greatest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities outside Iraq” does strike me as endearingly, well, British.

Try as we might to run from our colonial past, we cannot stop ourselves from trying to make sense of the present by looking back — way back. We inherit a conviction that the study of ancient history will shed light on ourselves and the world around us because some of our most learned men have told us so. Or, as the English courtier-philosopher Francis Bacon wrote 400 years ago, wonder is the seed of knowledge. “Antiquities are history defaced,” he wrote, “or some remnants of history which have casually escaped the shipwreck of time.”

It is tempting to dismiss the British fascination with archaeology as evidence of a bunch of dotty intellectuals pining for the glory of the British Empire, but that wouldn’t be fair. People here don’t talk about toppling Saddam Hussein to expand “zones of democracy.” That’s U.S.-government talk. Nor can the average person here be bothered with cultural expansion of the sort the British empire once pursued. This time, second fiddle is fine. We lost one empire and it took us half a century to recover.

Maybe we haven’t entirely lost our inclinations toward empire-building, but at least we have grown up. Our first experiment with imperialism was a tragedy. We prefer to conduct our second as archae- ology, ideally without having to return any of our past spoils, whatever the circumstances of their removal.

Naturally, we think we’re onto something. At the Royal Academy’s recent “Aztecs” show, children on school trips lay on their tummies and sketched ancient sculptures used for sacrificing still-beating human hearts to the gods. Gemma, the little girl at the British Museum, is about to study the ancient Egyptians as part of the national state curriculum.

Jane Snowden, a researcher-librarian, came to the British Museum this past Tuesday and found herself “drawn” to its Assyrian reliefs, which are “all about war and looting” and were vandalized in the seventh century.

“We think we’ve evolved, but we haven’t really,” she says. “It’s important to see the continuity of history. It’s all part of a link.” Indeed, the Rest of the World still competes with gardening as one of our more palatable national obsessions. At my local bookstore, in Chelsea, the stockist knows his old-school clientele. A copy of Bob Woodward’s “Bush at War” stands next to “Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Westerners,” a first edition of William Dalrymple’s “White Mughals” (a tale of “love and betrayal in 18th-century India”) and “Gardens of England and Wales Open for Charity,” alongside several globes the size of softballs.

These days, our sights are post-imperial. We’ve abandoned our rhetoric of acquisition. Postwar talk today at the British Museum is about helping Iraq recover its looted treasures. Gone are the aristocratic plunderers of yore. So acute is our national feeling of responsibility that an anonymous donor has paid for a team of museum conservators and curators to travel to Baghdad this week to help Iraq track down its treasures.

“I don’t know what I think about the Elgin Marbles. I genuinely don’t,” says Snowden, glancing over the shoulder of her plaid jacket. “But I’m bloody glad they’re here right now. Same for the Assyrian Bulls.”

What strikes me about the visitors to the Department of the Ancient Near East, however, is how their feelings of powerlessness emerge as curiosity, not fury. Their quest for facts is an apolitical one. It’s impossible to tell if they support or condemn the use of force to free Iraq of Saddam Hussein.

The same cannot be said for the audiences at the growing number of war-related arts events across London. The other evening, I went along to the Royal Court Theater in Sloane Square, where playwrights, actors and directors were showing short works based on their reactions to the war. It was a lively crowd. Couples gathered over late-afternoon beers in the bar. One woman, in her sixties, planned to attend all six performances, and I asked why.

“I would have thought it was obvious,” she snarled.

Nothing about background or historical perspective. No. Everyone she knows is “angry” about the war and wanted “something to do with their feelings.”

Inside, during a “documentary” by playwright Caryl Churchill, five actors, including a very gloomy Alan Rickman, read excerpts of an Internet chat between a handful of mostly repugnant and verbally aggressive Americans and Iraqis. One American referred to the Iraqi leader as “So Damn Insane,” while an Iraqi yelled at the pro-war Americans to get back “to your own chat rooms.”

Subtle it was not. But it did draw the audience onto the sore subject of Empire. Not ours. America’s. One man earned bitter applause when he said the real reason for the war is that George Bush wants “Wal-Marts in Basra.”

Frankly, I preferred the British Museum. There, at least, it was easy to admire the power of archaeology and to transcend — and avoid — politics. As Snowden told me after her most recent museum gallery tour: “It’s an indication that we are doing our best as a civilized society that we have some- body in Bloomsbury who can read cuneiform texts to us.”


Sue Ellicott is a British journalist and a frequent panelist for the weekly National Public Radio news quiz “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me.”


Joe Bob’s America: Burning museum? Ho hum
By Joe Bob Briggs
From the Life & Mind Desk
Published 4/17/2003 10:23 AM
View printer-friendly version

NEW YORK, April 17 (UPI) — So my first question is: How do we manage to maintain an armed guard around the Oil Ministry on the same days when the National Museum is being looted and the House of Wisdom library is being burned?

What were they gonna steal from the Oil Ministry? Pipeline distribution graphs? Tertiary recovery secrets? What kind of profiling of the Iraqi hooligan class went on for someone to decide, “These people are animals! Be sure to secure the Oil Ministry IMMEDIATELY or else they’ll be in there making off with the drill bits. If we don’t keep this under control, we could have rampant rough necking and SLANT DRILLING. It could be like Spindletop all over again.”

I mean, how much of a secret is it that Iraqis steal archeological artifacts whenever they can? It started in 1840, the year Paul Emile Botta, the French consular agent in Mosul, started digging and discovered the ancient city of Nineveh. So at least for the past 163 years — years in which every major museum and university in the world has sent excavation teams to Assyria — armed security guards have been pretty much a fact of life.

There have been movies about it, spectacular theft operations, organized criminal gangs. Anybody who’s seen the first scene of “The Exorcist” knows about it. Since we’re talking about the first civilization after the Flood, the oldest place on the planet, it’s pretty much the Super Bowl of art theft, and every gangster in Iraq has either worked it or tried to work it.

I’ve always believed in cultural imperialism when it comes to archeology, for a simple reason: the stuff is safer in the British Museum, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I think Britain should clamp their greedy imperialistic claws around the Elgin Marbles and never send them back to Greece, even for a week.

But the irony of this situation is that for 20 years now there’s been a “return antiquities to their homeland” movement, which is why so many of them remained in Iraq to begin with. Saddam Hussein obviously appreciated their value. He didn’t encourage people to USE the museum, but he did keep it locked up and guarded like a medieval treasury.

The problem with cuneiform tablets is that they’re fragile even under the best conditions. Archeology teams have watched them crumble to dust almost before they could be photographed and memorialized. So everyone always knew that the Baghdad museum was in a perilous position, but I think the feared scenario was that some petty tyrant would run off with them, or some fundamentalist ayatollah would have them destroyed as idols, or that they would be hit by a stray bomb. Nobody in their wildest dreams imagined that it would be the United States that essentially said, “Hey, y’all, over here! You know those 7,000-year-old gewgaws you’ve been hankering after? Well, have at it!”

From the first moment that the Pentagon even CONSIDERED war in Iraq, the scholars have been writing letters, requesting meetings, sending e-mails. There’s no way the White House didn’t know about the museum, or the other sensitive sites around Iraq.

By January there were actual meetings at the Pentagon between antiquities scholars and military officials — but apparently the memo didn’t make it up the chain to Rumsfeld or Franks. Rumsfeld was positively SMUG when asked about it this week, implying that the military had better things to do than guard museums.

Well let’s put it this way, Donald. Let’s say we were rolling troops into South Africa. I think the DIAMOND MINES would be on somebody’s list, wouldn’t they? There were fifty THOUSAND artifacts in that place — artifacts from the earliest cities in the world, cities where all three of the world’s major religions originated. If you had to put a street value on the stuff in that museum, it might be equal to OUR national budget, forget about Iraq’s. Men have been killed for a single alabaster door handle from the seraglio of King Sargon. This was like winning the

Powerball Middle East Lottery — except the only people who could buy tickets were homicidal thieves armed to the teeth.

Okay, that’s bad enough. But there’s MORE. The House of Wisdom library, containing the entire ARABIAN history of Iraq (that would be the seventh civilization, the first six having been housed in the other museum), burned down two days AFTER the National Museum was sacked. Wouldn’t the fact that one museum was essentially rubble lead someone to think, “Uh, maybe they’ll hit this other one”?

What’s annoying about the military reaction is that they seem to be implying that it’s some kind of uniquely Iraqi phenomenon, that the people are taking out their frustrations and delighting in the ruination of Saddam Hussein. But Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with either of these places — except that he was a better custodian than we were. They existed long before Saddam Hussein.

It’s the same thing that would happen in New York City if there was a total breakdown of government and police. The Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim — they all post HUNDREDS of guards, all the time. They could all be stripped in three days if somebody . . . DIDN’T CARE! If we made up a list of which buildings in Washington should have machine guns around them in a time of governmental chaos, why do I suspect the entire Smithsonian Institution would be on it?

The looting and destruction of these two buildings is already being compared to the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, but unfortunately it’s only half over.

Obviously, there were a lot of hurried meetings at museums and universities and cultural institutions this week. Even as I write this, there’s an emergency congress of archeologists being held by Unesco, the United Nations cultural arm, in Paris. And this is their principal idea for dealing with the situation: A moratorium on purchasing Iraqi antiquities on the international market. Don’t reward the robbers. Make it clear they can’t sell artifacts anywhere.

Do they WANT to see everything smashed into bits? The only thing that protects the artifacts right now is that they’re in the possession of someone who thinks he can get money for them. If some guy has a 6,000-year-old sculpture in his garage, and he suddenly finds out that it’s not worth any money but it CAN get him sent to prison for five years, what’s he likely to do?

Save us from the Pentagon, and please please, save us from curators. I thank you, the kings of Assyria thank you, and a sociopath named Samir thanks you. It wasn’t his fault that we left the door to Fort Knox open.

(Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)

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