Looting From Iraq: A Better Perspective


I’d like to devote some time today to the issue of looting following the invasion of Iraq in April, 2003. Specifically, I’d like to point out the perspective of Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a Manhattan District Attorney, classics scholar, and Marine who led a specialized multi-agency task force. Immediately after the invasion, countless news agencies and press reports claimed that 170,000 Iraqi antiquities had been stolen while American forces stood by and let things happen. Bogdanos has recently published a book about his exploits, Thieves of Baghdad, and has also written scholarly articles, including this one from the American Journal of Archaeology.

Much of the recent book details his personal experience as the son of Greek immigrants in New York, his decision to study classics during his time in law school, and also his experiences near ground zero on September 11, 2001. He is passionate about his service in the marine corps, and about his mission in Iraq, which may put some readers who are critical of the war and the invasion ill-at-ease. However, Bogdanos remains candid throughout, pointing out the struggles of marines in Iraq in dealing with the media, tribal leaders, and even western misconceptions.

The strength of Bogdanos’ account of the looting of the Baghdad museum is the way he brings a prosecutor’s attention to detail to the whole controversy. He creates a time line, and gives his opinion as to what the US military should or should not have done at various times during the invasion of the city of Baghdad.

In my view, a lot of commentators took their anger at the invasion, and turned it into blind criticism of how the military should have protected these antiquities . After reading Bogdanos’ account, clearly mistakes were made, but not to the extent that initial reports indicated. The Baghdad museum itself was rarely open to visitors under Saddam Hussein. In fact, American troops would have likely done more harm to the objects in the museum if they had been more robust in capturing the museum earlier, as there were Iraqi troops inside the museum. This picture shows a hole left by an american tank which was being fired upon from the archway. Granted, there are many arguments against the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the loss of Iraqi cultural heritage is a shining example of what went wrong, just not to the extent initially reported.

Who exactly looted the museum remains unknown for sure, but the US military’s policy of amnesty for the return of objects helped to bring back a number of priceless artifacts, including the sacred vase of Warka, which is 5,000 years old and considered one of the oldest existing sculptures. Unfortunately many priceless objects are still missing, and are on the FBI’s most wanted art thefts list.

In the end, after reading Bogdanos’ account, the tragedy of recent Iraqi history becomes manifest. This is the cradle of civilization; unfortunately now it is the location of a great deal of violence. Sadly, the recent death estimates which exceed 600,000 illustrate this.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Theft from Leeds, for Dr. No?



Last Thursday night, a burglar stole an antique clock valued at £65,000 from Temple Newsam House in Leeds the Yorkshire Post reports. The antique clock, which is 2 feet high dates from the early 19th century. Police are positing that the raid may have been targeted as the thief only took one item. The piece is very elaborate, and widely known, according to the article. Thus rendering its potential market quite slim.

The question then becomes, why would the item be stolen if its difficult to sell. As I see it, there are four potential answers to this question.

The first, is that a wealthy collector admires the piece, and hired a thief to take it for him. I’ll call this the Dr. No situation. This seems the least likely possibility, but the one that strikes a chord with the imagination. Writers in this subject frequently cite the Dr. No as being responsible for thefts, and I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been no convincing evidence that thsi is why people are stealing rare objects. Another similar possibility which seems far more likely is that an unscrupulous dealer may have a similar piece for sale, and if he can establish some excitement around these kinds of pieces, the price for his clock may go up. This is just wild speculation, and assigns a quite sinister tak to arts and antiquities dealers, a habit far too many writers in this field are fond of doing.

Second, the thief may not have known that the object was so rare as to make its subsequent sale difficult.

Third, the thief may simply be trying to kidnap the object. They could then insure its safe return for a generous reward, probably negotiated through a solicitor. Let’s assume now that those in charge of the Temple Newsom House are interested in generating more visitors, and a buzz around the clock. Perhaps they even staged the theft, and its sudden reappearance could become quite a windfall for the house, especially if it is struggling financially. This, of course, is wild speculation, and no evidence exists that this kind of activity takes place.

Finally, perhaps the market is doing such a poor job of regulating what is and is not legitimate, that it may not be all that difficult to sell this piece after all. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Church Thefts

In today’s New York Times, this piece details the theft of colonial art from Mexico’s rural churches. Apparently, theft from churches in Mexico’s colonial heartland near Mexico City has become widespread. According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico, 1,000 colonial pieces have been stolen since 1999. In response, the Mexican government is attempting to register the nation’s sacred art. According to the Times piece, 600,000 items have been inventoried so far. The institute is also preparing its own Web site of stolen art, so dealers and collectors can no longer claim that there is no record of the theft.

Such a database is both a welcome change, and worrying at the same time. In theory, a database should put dealers of Mexican colonial art on notice that a certain set of objects may be tainted. However, there are a number of such websites now available. See the Art Loss Register for example. The more of these databases there are, the harder it will be for the law to realistically impose an obligation on buyers and sellers of art and antiquities. If each segment of the cultural property market has its own database, this would almost certainly lead to confusion and overlap. One unified website would be a much better system. A buyer or seller could easily check a single website t insure their piece is not stolen.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com