April 25, 2006

For the sake of the art or for himself?

Posted at 12:36 pm in Similar cases

More on the recovery of Iraq’s looted artefacts.

The Boston Globe

For art’s sake, or his own?
A soldier’s role in retrieving Iraqi relics is controversial
By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff | April 23, 2006

BRONXVILLE, N.Y. — The Marine opens with a line from ”Hamlet.”

‘I could a tale unfold,” Matthew Bogdanos tells the 200 people gathered at Concordia College to hear how he stormed across war-torn Iraq with a handpicked band of brothers, all for the sake of stolen art.

As usual, Bogdanos doesn’t use a microphone. It’s too restrictive. His voice booms through the auditorium, a skill mastered during years as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. He paces the room, clicking through slides of looted galleries and raided palaces, peppering his talk with quotes from Socrates, Voltaire, and Mark Twain.

The art world and the United Nations failed to respond in 2003, he contends, when fighting in Baghdad led to looting at the Iraq Museum. But don’t blame the US military, he adds, punching the air with a finger. They were being shot at by Iraqi soldiers who took over the building, and had no choice but to retreat.

As he winds up his talk, Bogdanos shows a slide of the eighth century BC plaque ”The Lioness Attacking a Nubian,” one of the major works that haven’t been recovered. The image is on the cover of his recent book, ”Thieves of Baghdad.”

”It is a reminder to me — and hopefully to you — that we’re not done,” says Bogdanos.

Just over three years ago, Bogdanos, a Marine reservist, improvised a mission to respond to the museum crisis after coalition forces invaded Baghdad. His time in Iraq earned him a National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush last year.

It also led to a new career, and controversy. ”Nightline” recently called him the ”Indiana Jones of Baghdad.” Warner Brothers has optioned ”Thieves,” and, on Friday in Boston, Bogdanos makes an important appearance as the keynote speaker for the 100th anniversary of the annual conference of the American Association of Museums.

The AAM won’t say how much Bogdanos is earning for the talk, but the agency booking him hopes to get as much as $20,000 an appearance in the future.

With this high profile has come criticism — from some museum officials, archeologists, and soldiers in other branches of the military who served in Iraq. They raise questions about whether Bogdanos exaggerates his role in Baghdad and minimizes the contribution of others who were not under his command.

Corine Wegener, a now retired Army reservist and assistant curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, watched the ”Nightline” feature on Bogdanos earlier this month.

”I just couldn’t believe it,” says Wegener, who worked in Baghdad for eight months starting in 2003. ”The implication is he did all of it.”

Bogdanos says he’s credited others at every step, pointing out the long list of names referenced in his book. He says that in interviews he always names the others who worked to recover objects but that he has no control over what a reporter or TV producer uses. He says that his critics are misguided.

”They lose sight of the fact that every time I get attention, the museum and cause get attention,” he says.

Finding a mission
People listen to Matthew Bogdanos. In a world occupied by dusty academics with obscure specialties, he’s a dynamic communicator who doesn’t lecture but performs. Whether addressing archeologists or members of British parliament, Bogdanos, all 5 foot 7, 160 pounds of him, sticks out like a heavy metal guitarist at a piano recital.

”He’s an unforgettable performer in the courtroom,” says New York Supreme Court Judge Edwin Torres. ”He has boundless, almost inhuman energy. The guy is a dynamo.”

”Thieves of Baghdad” tells a story with all the makings of a Hollywood action flick. The central character is a rule-bending Marine-turned-lawyer with a classics degree from Columbia and an amateur boxing career. Back in New York, he prosecuted Sean ”P. Diddy” Combs. In Iraq, he’s surrounded by men with guns named Bud and Steve and Senior, on a mission that could end as soon as the higher-ups back in Washington catch on.

After 9/11, Bogdanos was sent to Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorist operations. He created his museum mission in April of 2003, after hearing press reports of the damage done to the Iraq Museum during the coalition advance.

”It’s one of the few things about this war that was conducted with some integrity by the American military, what Bogdanos did,” says Roger Atwood, the author of ”Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World,” who spent 16 days in Iraq and watched Bogdanos at work.

When he arrived in Baghdad on April 20, 2003, Bogdanos immediately realized that early reports of 170,000 lost objects were dramatically inflated. Within weeks, he determined that the correct figure was approximately 15,000 items missing from some 500,000 in the collection.

Still, Bogdanos knew many of the works reported stolen were priceless. He developed relationships with museum officials and locals to get objects back. He instituted an amnesty program in a country that, under Saddam Hussein, had punished looters with public executions.

On April 24, a day after the program was installed, a van pulled up to the museum to drop off a copper bull from Ninhursag, crafted circa 2500 BC. The next day, a man brought in a garbage bag containing a 7,000-year-old clay pot.

Holding those ancient treasures, Bogdanos began to develop the kernel of what has now become his mission when he returns to his job in the New York County District Attorney’s office in the next few weeks: to investigate, and recover, stolen art.

”Touching [the returned objects] . . . started to offer me insight into these people who buy this stuff,” Bogdanos says now. ”The lust.”

Credit where credit is due?
For archeologists and curators who even before the Iraq war worked to stop looting, Bogdanos has become a complicated figure.

”He’s done a lot of good stuff, and he has brought a lot of public attention to this, and he’s very charismatic,” says DePaul University law professor Patty Gerstenblith, an expert on cultural property issues who has watched Bogdanos woo many an audience. ”The biggest problem I have with him is he’s very critical of other people who make mistakes, but he also makes mistakes.”

Take a case in Newark.

On April 30, 2003, customs agents seized 669 Iraqi artifacts entering at the airport. In his book, Bogdanos takes the agents to task for moving too slowly and not conducting what he calls a ”controlled delivery,” using the seizure as bait for a larger arrest.

But while he criticizes the agents, he has likely made an error in describing the objects as coming from the Iraq Museum.

”We do have similar material, but those are not from the museum,” says Donny George, the head of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which oversees the museum.

The origin of the objects is important because the material is being used as evidence in an ongoing government investigation. According to George, John Malcolm Russell, a Massachusetts College of Art professor who spent nine months in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, examined the museum’s storerooms with an Iraqi archeologist and determined that the objects came not from the museum but from archeological sites elsewhere in Iraq. Russell declined to comment on the matter.

When first told of George’s statement early this month, Bogdanos said the museum director was ”just wrong.” He referenced two sources who he said had confirmed, for him, that the objects were from the museum. But when contacted by the Globe, both of those sources, Ahmed Kamil, who works under George as the Iraq Museum’s deputy director, and an archeologist who has asked not to be named, said that they believed George was correct.

On April 14, Bogdanos said he was surprised when told that Kamil had contradicted him. He said he now would need to reinterview his sources and consider making changes before the paperback version of his book is released this fall.

”Obviously it troubles me,” Bogdanos said. ”I have gone from completely convinced to ‘OK, this needs more work, this needs more investigation.’ If I’m convinced that it’s wrong, I’ll rewrite that part.”

Bogdanos has also come under scrutiny for varying accounts of his time in Iraq. In his book and lectures, he emphasizes how between April and November of 2003, the museum became his ”home,” showing a slide of the cot he set up in the building’s library so he could focus on the investigation. In ”Thieves of Baghdad,” he references the time as ”months.” In a July 2005 article in the American Journal of Archeology, Bogdanos stated that he called the Iraq Museum ”home for much of the next five months.” At the Concordia lecture on March 30, Bogdanos showed a slide of his cot set up at the museum. The caption above the photograph read, ”home.”

”For the next roughly six months,” he told the assembled, ”we all lived at the museum.”

The amount of time Bogdanos bunked at the Iraq Museum has become a sore subject for some of the others who worked there during that time and feel he has taken too much credit for the recovery of artifacts. They raise the point that other soldiers, who were not under Bogdanos’s command, were conducting the raids that yielded important recoveries.

For example, Bogdanos wasn’t involved in reclaiming some of the most important missing objects, including the marble Warka Mask, which dates to 3100 BC, and the pure copper Bassetki statue. Those objects are featured prominently in his book and lectures and counted when he lists the pieces recovered during his mission in Baghdad.

”He can claim to be where he wasn’t, he can claim to be doing things he didn’t do, but one day I’m sure it will all come out,” says Sarah Collins, a curator at the British Museum who has been at odds with Bogdanos since they met at the Iraq Museum in 2003.

When asked on March 30 about his description of his time spent at the Iraq Museum, Bogdanos said: ”You can say whatever you want. I considered the museum my home. I felt welcome there. I felt responsible for it. These are all the attributes I attribute to home.”

But a week later, after examining his records, Bogdanos said that he stayed at the museum for approximately four months. He blamed the discrepancy on his desire to create a shorthand version of his story for general audiences.

”If it’s got to be a little over the top to appeal, a little more rhetorically interesting, then I’m going to do it,” he said. ”But I should not do it at the expense of facts. I promise you I will never again say six months.”

Noting that he’s always first to correct his own mistakes, he says he has already developed a list of details he plans to amend in the paperback edition of his book.

Only the beginning
He hopes to return to Iraq. But after almost five years away, Bogdanos is heading back to work in Manhattan. He intends to take on the looters, the middlemen, the Madison Avenue art dealers, and the museums that fund all of them. ”Iraq,” Bogdanos says, ”is just a drop in the ocean.”

He’ll return to be a senior assistant district attorney in the Rackets Bureau, able to pursue antiquities cases within the office’s jurisdiction, spokeswoman Jennifer Kushner said this week. She declined to offer any other details.

But Russell, the MassArt professor, wonders if Bogdanos’s plan is the answer.

”I don’t think we need a poster child, we need a poster cause,” says Russell. ”For example, I believe that getting equipment into the hands of the Iraq archeological security forces so they can stop thefts from sites before they happen is a principal concern right now. I wonder if people walking out of Bogdanos’s talks are saying [that], or are they thinking how cool it’ll be when this task force starts in New York?”

Bogdanos says he can’t understand what anyone thinks he has to gain personally from this new mission. So far, most of his appearances have been pro bono. He simply wants to stop the illegal antiquities network.

”I don’t know a better way to do it than public awareness,” Bogdanos says, his voice rising. ”How many more pieces are going to be looted and maybe, for fear of being caught, smashed? How many more pieces and more contexts and more cities and more entire tombs are going to be destroyed?

”You know what?” he adds. ”If I have to be the lightning rod for this one, I’ll take this on the chin. That’s fine. But I’ll tell you what does bother me — when people question my motives. My goal is to put this cause in mainstream society. I had a life and a career before this. I had press before this. Where is this good for me?”

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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