Vanishing Heritage in the Cradle of Civilization


Things are looking increasingly grim in Iraq these days, with the US considering arming Sunni groups that once attacked coalition forces. Soon after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, western journalists visited the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad and reported incorrectly that 170,000 objects were stolen from the museum. More careful reporting soon accurately placed that number far lower, and current estimates seem to indicate that a still alarming 3,000 objects are still missing, with about 47 main exhibition artifacts missing.

Thus I always maintain a healthy bit of skepticism when articles come out detailing the loss of archaeological context and heritage in Iraq. The article last Friday by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian titled “In Iraq’s four-year looting frenzy, the allies have become the vandals”even viewed skeptically reveals some very troubling things about the way archaeological sites are treated by coalition forces.

The catalyst for the discussion was a presentation by Abbas al-Hussaini, the head of Iraq’s board of antiquities and heritage to the British Museum. He detailed a number of disturbing things. The former head of the antiquities board in Iraq, Donny George, left for a teaching position in New York, fearing for his life. Today the national museum “is not open but shut… Its doors are bricked up, it is surrounded by concrete walls and its exhibits are sandbagged. Even the staff cannot get inside.” A 10th century caravenserai of Khan al-Raba was used to explode captured weapons. Looters are better armed than the Iraqi forces seeking to protect the ancient monuments. Two 4,000 year-old cities, Isin and Shurnpak, have been demolished by looting pits. The 11 teams Hussaini has organized travel the countryside attempting to retrieve any artifacts the looters have left behind. Even muslim sites are subject to destruction, with a number of bombings of mosques from the 10th and 11th centuries

When I was in Istanbul in May, I saw some of the glazed bricks from the Ishtar gate leading to Babylon, and they are stunning. The lion image above was very impressive. For me then perhaps the most disturbing claims detail the destruction taking place at the ancient city of Babylon:

Hussaini confirmed a report… on America’s conversion of Nebuchadnezzar’s great city of Babylon into the hanging gardens of Halliburton. This meant a 150-hectare camp for 2,000 troops. In the process the 2,500-year-old brick pavement to the Ishtar Gate was smashed by tanks and the gate itself damaged. The archaeology-rich subsoil was bulldozed to fill sandbags, and large areas covered in compacted gravel for helipads and car parks. Babylon is being rendered archaeologically barren.

Despite some unnecessary snarking by Jenkins here, the destruction at Babylon is a grave tragedy. He does conveniently overlook some facts though. The coalition forces only seem to be continuing the destruction and disdain Saddam Hussein had for the site when he was in power. This slide show taken by US Marine Gunnery Sergeant Daniel O’Connell in 2003 shows the ancient city, the unfortunate modern reconstruction by Hussein on top of the archaeological site, and the modern palace he built where marines first stayed. The colonel in charge of the site apologized last year, and UNESCO officials are even considering developing the place into a tourist attraction at some point.

It seems very unfortunate that coalition forces, in the face of the looting of so many sites, should have blundered so badly at Babylon, which is in one of the most secure regions of Iraq. The Geneva Convention dictates that forces should treat opposing cultural heritage with care. Also, though the US and UK have failed to implement the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict(because it might restrict their ability to use nuclear arms), they notionally abide by its tenets.

The US is doing a good job of policing its antiquities market, as a Fox News cameraman was arrested for smuggling Iraqi antiquities into the country recently. The UK also has legislation preventing the import of Iraqi antiquities. Jenkins gets a final jab in at the Department of Culture Media and Sport which seems far more concerned with the upcoming London Olympics than the illicit cultural property market. I wonder if the £400,000 recently spent on the unfortunate mascot would have been better served policing the antiquities market. The Met’s Art and Antiquities squad has only 3 full time investigators, and is in jeopardy of further budget cuts. But only so much can be done when provenance or a title history is not routinely given during transactions. As long as the market is hidden from view, looters will continue to find purchasers for their ill-gotten gains.

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

Bernard Taper


Last Friday, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an interesting profile of Bernard Taper, one of the so-called Monument Men who worked to recover works stolen by the Nazi’s after WWII. He worked as an art-intelligence officer with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the U.S. military. I wonder what became of this section. It hasn’t seem to have been involved in any of the major conflicts the U.S. has waged since. Notably the efforts of Matthew Bogdanos in Iraq were on his own initiative because he has a background in Classics. It may be worth examining why this section has disappeared or if it is still functioning. It appears that it was a singular unit charged with repatriation Nazi spoliation. Profiles of these guys are always interesting, and this is no exception. Taper is featured prominently along with some others in the forthcoming documentary titled The rape of Europa. That film is being screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. For more information click here. Taper has an excellent story to tell as this excerpt shows:

“I was in the Army for three years, and I didn’t fire a shot at anybody and nobody fired a shot at me. That’s the definition of a good war,” the white-haired Taper, sharp at 89, says with a smile. But he did his part to bring forth light, in the form of recovered art, from the darkness of the war.

Born in London and educated at UC Berkeley, Taper was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He served in intelligence and infantry units before being sent back to Berkeley to learn Chinese in preparation for work as a liaison officer assigned to Chaing Kai-Shek’s army in China. But at the last minute, the entire class was sent to Germany, where the war was over.

“It was the Army. Why do you think they invented words like ‘snafu’?” laughs Taper, who was assigned to Patton’s Third Army, then sent to Munich to write intelligence reports. Lunching outdoors one day at an officers’ club, he fell into conversation with a dashing chap named Walter Horn, an Aryan German who abhorred Hitler and left, became a professor of medieval history at UC Berkeley and saw combat action during the war.

“He started telling me marvelous, fascinating stories about what it was like in his job to search for lost and stolen art,” recalls Taper, who had begun contributing to the New Yorker and the Nation while serving in occupied Germany. Horn was desperate to go home, but couldn’t until he found a successor for his art-investigating job. “When he met me he found his successor,” says Taper, who told Horn he wasn’t an art historian and probably wasn’t qualified. Horn said the Monuments section was “lousy with art historians,” but what was needed was somebody who knew how to ask questions. As a budding journalist, Taper fit the bill.

As a further inducement, Horn told him he would have the use of a white BMW roadster, wouldn’t have to wear a uniform, could travel freely without orders and would meet women. “And he said if nothing else, there’s all this art you can look at,” recalls Taper, quick to point out that he got a brown Audi sedan, not the promised BMW. For about six weeks, Taper was in charge of the Army’s art-collecting center at Wiesbaden, which was filled with not only looted art but works from various German civic collections.

“They had fantastic stuff there,” Taper says. “In the office, across the whole back wall, was Watteau’s ‘Embarkation for Cythera,’ and a wonderful Degas, where you look up through the orchestra pit, through the beards of the musicians, at these elegant dancers. It was from the Frankfurt Museum.” As Taper says in the documentary, “Just that office alone was worth the price of admission to World War II.” Outside the door stood a 5,000-year-old stone Nefertiti, which also stopped Taper in his tracks. “I couldn’t just brush by. I had to stop and commune with her.”

Building on the work of previous Monument Men, such as his friend Stewart Leonard, a bomb diffuser who single-handedly removed 22 mines from the Chartres Cathedral and later opened crates containing priceless books and Dürer drawings, Taper tracked down mostly mid-level missing artworks, by painters like the 16th century Dutch artist Mierevelt and his Flemish contemporary Teniers, as well church statuary and other looted objects.

“Probably the best artwork I helped recover was from Göring’s train,” Taper says, abandoned on a rail siding not far from Neuschwanstein Castle, where Allied troops found a huge cache of stolen art. The locals had heard there was schnapps on board, Taper says, and after stealing the schnapps, they took the rest of the stuff, which included late-Gothic wood statutes and a 15th century School of Rogier van der Weyden painting. “Not bad,” says Taper, who had the bright idea of tapping the de-Nazifed German police to help him find stolen goods.

Just a thought, but the stories of these Monument Men and the return of stolen art are quite popular and exciting. I wonder if that popularity and the good will they engender may have some kind of a connection to the generous statutes of limitations rules which have been applied to claimants seeking the return of art stolen from their forebears in recent decades.

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

Iraq Challenges a German Auction


Iraqi authorities have challenged an auction of two Sumerian artifacts which took place on Tuesday. One item was a limestone statue of a Sumerian (similar to the one pictured here), which dates to 2500 BC. The other was a nail made of clay bearing an inscription which puts its age between 2097 – 2095 BC. Iraq’s culture ministry appealed to UNESCO to intervene, but there is not much the organization can do in this case, other than publicize the problem and force German authorities to take action. There isn’t much information available on Iraq’s claim, so it’s very difficult to gauge the strength of their claim. Perhaps more information will come to light, but at this point, the German authorities are claiming that domestic law does not allow them to take any action. If this had occurred in the US, federal prosecutors may have been able to bring a forfeiture claim, if they were convinced the object was indeed stolen or illicitly excavated. I am not sure if Germany has a similar legal mechanism.

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

Donny George hired at Stony Brook University


Donny George, the former director of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad has been hired as a visiting professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island. George left Iraq recently, after he feared for his safety. For many, he was the public face of the much-publicized (and sometimes over-exaggerated) theft and looting of Iraqi antiquities in 2003. George featured prominently in Matthew Bogdanos’ work, Thieves of Baghdad, which I discussed earlier here. It is indeed unfortunate that George cannot continue his work in Iraq, but the situation there seems to be growing increasingly unstable. Unfortunately, protecting the nation’s antiquities, and ancient sites, is not a priority for the Iraqi government, nor the foreign forces stationed there.

The picture is of the ancient city of Babylon, taken by an American soldier from a blackhawk helicopter with his digital camera.

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

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