April 18, 2006

Recovering Iraq’s treasures

Posted at 1:08 pm in Similar cases

Colonel Matthew Bogdanos is the person who has been put in charge of the recovery of Iraq’s treasures. The fact that someone is in charge of the situation indicates that following intensive media coverage, the US government now realises the seriousness of the problem. On the other hand, it is still too much a case of to little too late.

The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)

April 17, 2006
Recovering pillaged Iraqi art is expert’s goal
By Jacob Stockinger

When it comes to funding terrorism, stealing art in Iraq is like growing opium poppies in Afghanistan, according to one expert in art, crime and terrorism who will speak soon in Madison.

“There is no doubt that the international trade in illegal Iraqi art and antiquities is funding the insurgency,” says Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a reserve officer in the U.S. Marines who holds advanced degrees in law, art history and military strategy.

“It’s not the first or second source of funding for the insurgents, but it’s enough. They have stolen or dug up art and antiquities and sold them on the black market to buy weapons.”

Bogdanos notes that Iraq has some 10,000 known archeological sites that can provide insurgents with an endless supply of art and antiquities that bring big money on the illegal black market.

A homicide prosecutor in Manhattan who was called up on 9/11 as a counter-terrorism expert, Bogdanos oversaw the U.S. military effort to stop the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003 and then to recover a lot of the stolen artwork and antiquities that had disappeared into the black market.

Bogdanos, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2005 for his effort and who speaks worldwide on behalf on Iraqi art, has also written a book, “The Thieves of Baghdad,” in which he documents what really happened at the Iraq Museum.

He is donating all proceeds to the museum, which he notes wasn’t damaged by bombs or shells, but hasn’t been repaired or updated since 1965.

“It is a huge museum that is one of the finest in the world. It takes up 11 acres and has more than 500,000 objects including of some of the oldest in the world,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Manhattan. “It compares favorably to the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London.”

By comparison, the Chazen Museum has 18,000 objects and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art has 5,000.

Bogdanos also wants to set the record straight, and says that part of his talk will be devoted to correcting what he considers bad information about the looting of Iraqi artifacts.

“I was somewhat astounded at the magnitude of the misinformation that was presented, and continues to be presented, about what happened at the Iraq Museum,” he says.

“I’m a homicide prosecutor, so few things shock me,” he added. “But some major media outlets continue to get it wrong. It’s almost as if the media, like every occupation, views the world through their own prism and ideology.

The truth is, he said, “the myth of heartless Americans who stood by and let the looting happen is false.”

Bogdanos reeled off an encouraging record of success in recovering art from all over the world.

Thirty-one of the finest 40 pieces that were stolen from the museum’s public galleries have been recovered. Similarly, of the above-ground storage rooms, he said that about 3,100 of the 3,128 objects have been recovered.

“The most troubling theft of all was not by the public, but was an inside job,” he said. This involved underground storage areas that held 10,686 precious items, including objects ranging from Greek, Roman and Arabic coins to thumb-sized cylindrical cuneiform seals that can sell for up to $250,000 each.

“Tens of millions of dollars’ worth of them would fit in a fanny pack,” Bogdanos said. About 3,000 have been recovered.

Bogdanos also said part of his goal is to put the theft of Iraq’s art in a larger context.

“I need the world to understand the continuing cultural catastrophe that is represented by the pillaging of such a shared heritage,” he said.

“We live in a world that too often relies on a reductive dualism. Israeli or Palestinian, red state or blue state – everything is either-or. Our shared cultural heritage offers one of the best ways we have to bridge that kind of cultural divide.

“It is crucially important to me and our shared cultural heritage that this stuff isn’t seen just a bunch of old alabaster with funny writing on it. It speaks and resonates with all cultures. The Sacred Vase of Warka (circa 3200 B.C.) is one of the world’s first art objects and is gorgeous. It speaks to all of us, whether we are Jewish, Muslim or Christian.

“I want the facts about the art thefts in Iraq to stay in the news cycle. I want people to understand that it mattered yesterday, matters today and will matter tomorrow.”

Bring in the U.N.: One way to keep the story visible would be for the United Nations to establish a permanent commission to investigate the worldwide black market in stolen art and antiquities.

Right now, Bogdanos said, the U.S., Britain and Italy are leading such an effort, but most nations – including the vital trading center Switzerland – are withholding vital support for the idea. As a result, the U.N. has failed to respond to his call.

“It is absurd that the only investigation into the Iraqi Museum is mine,” he said. “I want the United Nations to study and collect data on the trade in antiquities and do it methodically, not haphazardly. The origin nations don’t have the resources, so we need the transit nations to fund it.

“We do it for drugs. Why not for art?”


What: A lecture and slide show by Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine reserve officer. Bogdanos also will sign copies of his book, “Thieves of Baghdad: The Journey to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures.” His appearance is sponsored by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

When: Wednesday, May 3, at 7 p.m.

Where: UW-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave.

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