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The Looting of Iraq's Cultural Treasures

Colonel Matthew Bogdanos
US Central Command, Iraq Museum Investigation

February 11, 2004

(Click here for a verbatim transcript of an earlier version of Col. Bogdanos' presentation, a link to the slides which accompanied this presentation, and the investigation's final report.)

This discussion deals with the US-led effort to recover art and cultural objects looted from the Iraqi National Museum in April 2003. The discussion aims to be free of politics. The aim is to present the facts, which the media misreported.

I am a Marine Reservist and a New York City prosecutor, an Assistant District Attorney. In 2001, I became head of a joint interagency task force at US Central Command. The formation of the task force had been discussed for decades, but it didn't come into existence until after 9/11. The Task force consists of employees of federal law enforcement agencies and military investigators (CIA, FDI, DIA, Customs, Treasury, etc) from the United States and United Kingdom. The goal of the Task Force is counter terrorism.

We went to Iraq in March 2003, heading north, looking for terror cells, terror financing, and violations of UN Security Council resolutions, among other things. During that time, I heard that 170,000 artifacts had been looted from Baghdad's art museum. In the media, it was described as the second coming of Genghis Khan. I asked General Franks for permission to create a small team to conduct an investigation. We had heard reports that US forces may have been involved in the looting (this turned out to be false), and we were ready to expose anyone. General Franks said to let the chips fall where they may.

-The Museum Staff
Dr. Ibrahim Al Jabar was the Director of the Iraqi National Museum. He was in charge. A Baathist, his family name is Al Tikriti. He was a political appointee with limited knowledge of art.
Dr. Donny George was the Director of Research at the Museum. Well-known in his field and knowledgeable, he is now the Director.
Dr. Nawala al-Mutawili was the Museum's curator. A woman who was not a Baathist, she rose to her position based on deep knowledge and competence. She has become deeply embittered, however.

-The Investigation's Goals
We took a four-pronged approach
1. Determine what is missing.
2. Get as many pictures of lost objects as possible to interdict items at borders.
3. Do community outreach and extend amnesty to find items
4. Develop confidential sources for raids

Our investigation was premised on trust. We decided not to wear helmets to avoid the message that helmets send. The team members were allowed to wear helmets, but all the members decided not to. The Geneva Convention requires uniforms. We drank a ton of tea to develop trust. In a guest culture, you can't turn down tea if you don't want to give offense.

-Taking inventory
There was no real existing inventory of the museum. Some branches have inventories; quality varied. Some inventories were burned in the looting. Many Iraqis saw the museum as Saddam's personal trove. It was identified with the Baath party, so the level of violence toward the museum was similar to that at Presidential palaces. Although most museum objects were never catalogued, we could go to nations that jointly sponsored excavations and get their records to see what should be in the museum. The Italians were particularly helpful.

-Disseminate photos
We tried to spread the photos as widely as possible, to give authorities an idea what to look for. Photos went to Interpol, the FBI, Scotland Yard, the Italian Carabieri, the US Justice Dept., and to the customs agencies of other nations in the Middle East and Europe - places where stolen art is likely to go.

There were several New York City cops who were reservists on the team. I even asked several cops in New York to go on active duty and help out. We had to figure out if our goal was to prosecute or get the stuff back. Clearly, we wanted to get stuff back. That objective drove the extension of amnesty; we didn't necessarily care how items were stolen or who the perpetrator was.

The museum staff told us that under Saddam, individuals caught looting from archeological sites were executed. Some were beheaded. The museum staff was proud of this. So when we said we wouldn't kill people if they brought stuff back, no one believed us, especially given that we had retained the museum director, a Baathist. Like elsewhere in Iraq, we could not fire everyone from the Baath party. They're the corporate knowledge of Iraq, needed to run the state. Eventually, with effort, the idea of amnesty started to sink in, and we began to get a trickle of returned objects.

Many people didn't want to return objects, fearing they would be returned to the Baath party. We had to promise that we would be temporary caretakers for the Iraqi people, that we would hold and catalog the objects and then give them over to a lawfully enacted Iraqi government. Almost 2000 pieces were ultimately returned under amnesty.

What legal authority did we have to establish an amnesty program? None, but it seemed like right thing to do.

Why did people return objects? Some truly took things to take care of them during looting. Some stole items and returned them due to fear of being caught. Some returned them due to conscience. People had different reasons.

We didn't pay for anything. Payment for information as a law enforcement technique is a last resort. People would come in and return their objects and have a cup of tea.

-Raids and Seizures
We got the same kind of information we would get in New York. People who give information about illegality to authorities generally are either involved in the crime or a competitor of the person they're giving up. That is to say, people helping investigators usually have an agenda. For instance, we would get information from a market vendor that his rival vendor was selling antiquities. We always feared that the raids would lead to ambush, but we followed the tips and encountered no ambushes.

-The Treasure of Nimrud
Years ago, Saddam moved this collection of priceless valuables from the museum to the vaults of the Central Bank of Iraq in Baghdad, along with the royal family jewels. They were there for a decade. Saddam's two sons had gone into vaults before war and taken out billions of dollars, but for whatever reason, they didn't take the treasures. We found the treasure and the jewels in the vaults.

The vaults had been flooded. National Geographic was with us filming, and they got pumps to clear the water. These are state of the art German vaults. In the first vault, we found a dead Iraqi who had tried to get in by firing a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) down a hallway. The explosive scratched the door and pulverized his body. In the second vault, we found two groups of dead Iraqis. They had tried to break in nearly simultaneously and had a gunfight, leaving gory results. They didn't get inside the vault. There was some water damage to the treasure, but the British Museum is restoring it.

-The Bomb Shelter
Informants revealed that a bomb shelter in western Baghdad contained almost 40,000 ancient manuscripts removed from the museum before the war. Members of the community established a watch to guard the manuscripts and stopped several gangs from breaking in. When told of this find, the head of the manuscript department revealed that he knew about it all along, but hadn't been asked. The community leaders agreed to return the materials, and I told them we would arrive the next day with trucks and fanfare.

I asked the media to come film a ceremonial returning of the materials. I brought the head of manuscript department, overcame his reluctance, and got him to speak to the crowd -- to thank them. He got on a truck bed and made remarks. As soon as he started talking, the crowd got ugly. The leaders got upset. It turned out that the museum official was a senior member of the Baath party. The crowd was not ready for that, and the leaders did not want to return the manuscripts to the Baath Party. All this occurred on camera. We resolved that we would put all the manuscripts back in the shelters, with the promise that the community watch would continue to protect them and call on US forces if problems arose. So the manuscripts remain in the shelter, protected by the watch, and will be returned to the museum when a lawful Iraqi government takes over.

-The Secret Place
We noticed that the staff, especially Donny George, kept saying stuff was missing when it actually was not. These errors caused us to send out false reports of missing items. By following Dr. Nawala, we found that there was a secret hiding place. All the Muslim members of the staff had sworn on the Koran not reveal this room and its contents. Donny George, a Christian, had not been in on the pact, so he did not know which items were not really missing. All the items from the display cases were there. We went in to the hiding place, took inventory, and then resealed it.

-Chronology of looting
On April 8, the last staff left the museum.
Between April 9 and 12, looters entered the museum.
On April 12, staff members returned, and the looting stopped.
On April 16, US forces entered the museum compound.

Why didn't the US forces enter sooner? We can first say that a few days would not have mattered given that looting stopped on the 12th. Aside from that, I can only say that it was dangerous to put a tank out there alone; it was a very vulnerable position. Eventually the United States moved in a tank platoon.

The 170,000 figure is way wrong. Moreover, numbers are misleading because some stuff is invaluable, some irreplaceable. We found wanton destruction in administrative areas - everything was shattered and burned. But museum itself - the galleries, the public spaces - was barely damaged. Looters did not intentionally destroy the artistic area. They struck out against the Baath party, not the museum. This discrimination is a credit to the Iraqi people.

Forty exhibits were stolen, 13 returned. The sacred vase of Warka was returned. The media says it was damaged in the war, but that's wrong. It was damaged when it was recovered in the 1940s. I think the individual who took it truly took it for safeguarding. We got the bronze bull back, but its companion piece is still missing. We recovered the Sumerian mask from 3200 BC - the first known mask. This item changed hands five times before we recovered it. We found it at a farm north of Baghdad on a tip. A US-Iraqi raid and interrogation revealed that it was buried in a back yard. It would have been shipped out of country sooner, but for fear of interdiction - demonstrating the value of publicity. We recovered an ancient statue in a cesspool in Baghdad. This item was not taken by pros - the thieves dropped it five times because it was so heavy. They dumped it, and an informant revealed it. The golden harp of Ur was found. It was getting restored when it was stolen. Though damaged, it can be restored.

From the Heritage Room, 236 items were stolen; 167 recovered. It is impossible to teach customs officials to identify these antiquities, but the majority was recovered. From the Restoration Room, 199 items were stolen; 118 recovered. Most of this came back under the Amnesty program. Some was returned subtly by the staff - we looked the other way.

In the Storage Room, it was hard to know what was gone. 2703 items were stolen; 2549 recovered. There was no forced entry, and the room keys were in Nawala's safe, indicating an inside job. The items seem to have been taken randomly. You could see arm sweeps across the dust on shelves next to bag marks in the dust on the floor. Then you would see a pile of items on ground, next to a shelf where the thief had found something better to fill his bag with. There were counterfeit antiquities stolen, indicating a nonprofessional effort.

-The Sniper Position. The museum sits across from a Republican Guard Compound. The museum was a fortified tactical position. We found a lot of ammunition inside. Snipers travel in pairs, and we found evidence of this on the second floor. The evidence of the sniper position is consistent with reports that between April 9th and 12th, coalition forces took fire from the museum.

Under international law, forces are not allowed to fight in certain places, museums among them. But soldiers are always permitted to defend themselves. The US Army got permission to fire a tank round at the position in the museum. The evidence indicates that they missed the snipers narrowly. We found two Iraqi Army uniforms in a pile and a cartridge belt on the way out to the front door, indicating that the soldiers fled, and may have left the door open. But we don't know how they got inside the museum in first place.

We found RPGs on the museum's roof. There were 15 Iraqi army uniforms found in the museum. There is a retaining wall around the museum, allowing forces to move around the building between firing under cover. There were well-placed firing positions. The evidence indicates the soldiers took fire, took off their uniforms and went home. I'm not suggesting that the museum staff voluntarily helped the Iraqi army, but it seems that the forces had keys and were able to build a firing position. This evidence raises the possibility that Iraqi army was involved in looting art.

-The Basement Magazine.
The vast majority of art taken was taken from here. It is inconceivable that this was done by anyone without a museum employee's help. The basement is reached by a secret stairwell. Some basement rooms, full of goods, were untouched. Footprints lead deep into the storage room where 30 nondescript cabinets sit. They contain the world's finest collection of ancient coins - 100,000 of them - and 5,000 of the world's best cylinder seals. On top of the storage cabinets sat untouched boxes and safes, which were empty. The person who went back there knew exactly where the valuables were.

But they didn't get the coins. The contents of some containers - not the cabinets - were dumped everywhere. Amid it, after a long search, we found the keys to the storage cabinet - which had been hidden elsewhere in the museum in a secret location known to only a few people. During war, there was no electricity, and hence no light in the basement. The perpetrators had lit the foam padding on the floor, which gives off a nice flame but noxious fumes. Somehow they dropped the keys, and amid the fumes, became panicked and tossed things about as they searched until the light gave out. Disaster was luckily averted, but many cylinder seals and other valuable items were taken. From this room alone, 10,337 pieces were stolen. Most remain unrecovered.

-The Dynamics of the Theft
Professionals robbed the public galleries - 40 exhibits. The best stuff was picked out. The looting of the old storage rooms was random. It was a target of opportunity robbed by people from the neighborhood. The basement was an inside job.

-The Recovery Method
We used different tactics for these different types of thefts. The excavation site pieces, randomly taken by looters, were mostly recovered. The high value artifacts are harder to recover. These were bought before they were stolen. Smugglers move shipments of stolen antiquities along with drugs and weapons. Most of this stuff goes to Dubai and Switzerland and then to United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and, increasingly to Russia.

One method for apprehension is controlled delivery. We intercept a shipment and then put it back in transit under watch to find the buyers. We get them and force them to give up others. The inside job in the basement has led to recriminations among the staff -everyone accuses everyone. Our best hope is to interdict shipments.

We also set up websites to publicize lost items - sites include the FBI, Interpol, The State Department, Customs, and the Art Loss Registry. We use wanted posters for the most valuable items.

-Current Status
The numbers change hourly; so those given are already wrong. We recovered 4314 items from amnesty and raids and seizures.

Twenty seven pieces from the gallery out of 40 are missing. From the old magazine, 304 pieces of 3138 are missing. From the new magazine, 8870 of 10,337 are missing.

I got one item handed off to me in New York. Some journalists have been caught with stolen items. Fingerprints from the basement were run against the US armed forces database and didn't match anything. This shows that US forces did not take the items from the basement. Not one witness implicates US personnel.

-Lessons learned
Smuggling routes overlap with other smuggling activities - so those who buy this art are tied into networks smuggling drugs and weapons.

The sine qua non of smuggling is the need to use dealers as clearing houses and experts who will authenticate value. So experts have to participate. Some people in the art world must be doing this. Without authentication this market wouldn't function.

Some countries - Switzerland and Dubai - have no interest in inspecting more; they generate lot of revenue from customs and excise fees. Criminal law way is way behind the stolen art market; you still have to prove how stuff comes out of ground, which is often impossible.

More resources and attention will bring success.

We need a single point of contact for all people combating this problem. Interpol is the best option, but they don't want to do this because they are short on resources.

Today the United States is doing 99% of the investigation although the United Kingdom has done a lot through Scotland Yard. Iraq needs permanent law enforcement at the museum - that's coming. Border and custom officials need training to spot stolen art.

The art community needs more self regulation. They need a set of ethical rules. There should be a way to establish provenance more comprehensively. Dealers might allow consensual searches. Increased cooperation among countries and between law enforcement and the art community, and between federal, state and local authorities would help.

Colonel Matthew Bogdanos led the U.S. government's investigation into the theft and looting of the Iraqi museum in Baghdad. A Marine Reservist, he was called to active duty after the September 11th attacks. Prior to that, he was a homicide prosecutor in the New York City District Attorney's Office. Along with his law degree, he has a graduate degree in classical studies from Columbia University.

Rapporteur: Ben Friedman

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