Tuesday, 22 April 2003

Raiders of the lost art

It's fast, easy and encouragingly cheap to enter the booming market in Iraqi antiquities. How about an early Sumerian glass-beaded necklace for only $24? A 2,000-year-old bronze arrowhead for $14? Or an ancient cuneiform tablet, moulded from Mesopotamian clay, and bearing the imprint of a barter deal for sheep or wine, for $1.25? They can all be found within a few seconds on ebay and other websites on the internet, and there's plenty more on the way.

The sacking of Iraq's National Museum last week may at first have looked like an act of random vengeance against a convenient emblem of the state. Why else would a people loot their own history? Especially a people so closely connected to a past of incomparable richness.

The more the scale of the losses became apparent - at least 170,000 items are missing or destroyed - the less sense it seemed to make. Who had done it? And what would the plunder be good for in the slums of Saddam City? Impressing the neighbours?

But even as the world of antiquities reeled from a tragedy that Paul Zimansky, the eminent American archaeologist, likened to the burning of the library at Alexandria in classical times, a new and more sinister picture of what happened in Baghdad was emerging. It now appears that the looting of the museum was neither spontaneous nor random. In all probability, it was planned well in advance of the American-led invasion, and the thieves almost certainly benefited from inside help.

Interpol and FBI agents who have been brought in to investigate believe the most valuable pieces were stolen to order, and are already on their way to Europe, America or Japan. "The vaults where the best pieces are kept, were opened with keys," says McGuire Gibson, the president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad. "Looters coming in off the streets, don't usually have keys, do they? It appears to have been a deliberate, planned action. My feeling is that it was organised abroad."

Witnesses have spoken of seeing well-dressed men with walkie-talkies at the scene, and of artefacts being transported away in orderly convoys of vans rather than over the heads of the crowd. "We already have reports of exhibits being offered for sale in Switzerland and Japan," says Karl-Heinz Kind, Interpol's specialist officer for art and antiquity trafficking. "Even in a war zone, even with the country practically sealed off, these things can move with incredible speed."

Last night Jordanian custom officers reported that they had confiscated some exhibits looted from the Iraqi National Museum, the first stolen items to be recovered. But the rescued artefacts were merely 41 photographs and four oil paintings of Saddam Hussein.

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