Tom Hundley has a very long piece in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune on antiquities looting, Iraq, and Jim Cuno’s arguments (with slideshow). It’s an interesting read, as it summarizes nicely some of the problems with antiquities looting in Iraq, which he argues began in the difficult economic times after the first Iraq War.
At the close of the war in 1991, as Saddam fought off insurrections from the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, the U.S. government imposed a no-fly zone over large swaths of Iraq. This, along with strict UN trade sanctions, created a kind of perfect storm. With the weakened Baghdad regime unable to control large parts of the country, impoverished Iraqi villagers—often with the blessing of village elders—turned to the only source of income available to them: scavenging the hundreds of archeological sites that dot the landscape between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
In some areas, the trade in looted antiquities accounted for almost 85 percent of local economic activity. Meanwhile, a weak U.S. economy at the end of George H. W. Bush’s presidency was encouraging the truly rich to look for alternatives to stocks and bonds. Art and antiquities fit the bill. As supply obligingly met demand, the market for Mesopotamian antiquities blossomed. Within months of the war’s end, a treasure trove of Mesopotamian antiquities began to show up in the gilded display rooms of auction houses in London and New York, no questions asked.
The article then goes on to summarize James Cuno’s views, and gives a very superficial discussion of national patrimony laws. He writes incorrectly I think that the Hague and UNESCO Conventions are the foundation for national patrimony laws. I think that’s a questionable assertion, as many patrimony laws were established long before these.
It is worth noting that there is a gross factual inaccuracy in the piece. Despite what the article says, the U.S. has ratified the 1954 Hague Convention. Perhaps Hundley should have spent a bit more time talking with Patty Gerstenblith, whom he quotes in the piece, or even Larry Rothfield — another Chicagoan — who has written a recent work on the looting in Iraq.