The fog of war rolled through the Iraq National Museum like some Biblical plague. After American troops moved into Baghdad, horrendous stories of looting--claims that everything was gone, all 170,000 pieces--and accusations of callous indifference by U.S. troops soon gave way to exaggerated "good news" stories that seemed to suggest nothing really serious had happened.
HERE'S THE real news: American and Iraqi investigators this week released a "most wanted" list showing 30 priceless antiquities still missing from the museum's main collection, along with some 13,000 other pieces. (No, they're not printed up as playing cards.)
Over the past couple of months, Iraqi museum staff, experts at the British Museum in London and U.S. investigators, have discussed the thefts in detail with NEWSWEEK reporters. While some of the picture is still vague and the true culprits still can't quite be identified, the fog is slowly lifting.
The most-wanted masterpieces were all either in the exhibit halls at the time of the looting, or in a single storage room on the main floor--Room 104. The thieves apparently were familiar with this location, and their pilfering was very selective indeed. "Someone who knows that museum and knows it well either did it or gave very good information to the people who did it," says Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney in New York City (who once prosecuted P. Diddy) and a reserve colonel in the U.S. Marines. He led the investigations in Baghdad by the so-called Joint Interagency Coordination Group.
The high-value artifacts, worth millions of dollars to illicit dealers, presumably were smuggled out of Iraq very quickly after the thefts. According to Bogdanos, investigators are now focused on the buyers. "We go to the front end," he says, meaning dealers mainly in New York and London. Bogdanos says he has concrete information and is targeting specific people, but, won't elaborate. "Even though I might know a lot of it is in the storage room of a Madison Avenue gallery I can't just go in there," said Bogdanos. "It's a process." Earlier this month, he says, there were at least four separate seizures of items not on the most-wanted list in three different countries so far, though he wouldn't provide details.
In Baghdad today, Ahmed Kamel Mohammed, the deputy director of the museum, walked us through the list of the missing masterpieces. Asked to rank them in importance, he shook his head like a man asked to rank the value of his children. "All these pieces are the most-important pieces," he said.
Some--like the nine bricks with cuneiform inscriptions of ancient Sumerian princes, or the early Kufic gravestones from the era following the death of the Prophet Mohammed--would be of interest mainly to specialists. But what is striking about many of the most-wanted 30 is the obviousness of their artistic originality and strength. Even in the museum's poorly reproduced photographs, the art can touch anyone who appreciates the powerful combination of vision, craft and ancient history.
There's the sculpted bronze base of a statue, a boy's legs--perhaps a prince's--from the Akkadian era 4,350 years ago. Though a little less than a yard in diameter, it weighs more than 300 pounds and had been left in the Akkadian Hall of the museum because officials thought it would be too heavy for looters to move. The same bad judgment was made about the stone torso, in princely robes, of a regional ruler named Entemena from 4,800 years ago. The Entemena torso is less than a yard high. Another of the artifacts, a small bronze chariot in the form of a walled city with towers, 2,800 years old, was left in the Assyrian-Babylonian Hall to be taken by the thieves. Not even a photograph of it remains.
The heads of Hatra are in a class by themselves. Five of them, life-size or close to it, were taken from the museum hall devoted to the city of Hatra. Like Palmyra and Petra, it thrived 2,000 years ago on the trade in silks and spices along the caravan routes that ran from the Far East to the Mediterranean world of Greece and Rome. For Westerners, there's a familiarity about the art and what it represents. A Poseidon figure, an Apollo face, a goddess of victory, another female deity, and the head of a little Eros figure were carried away by the thieves, who sometimes left the decapitated stone bodies behind.
Ahmed Kamel Mohammed says it's conceivable that collectors in the West, who often care little about the looting of the East, could rationalize to themselves that these Hellenistic faces were dug from the ground in Syria or Jordan or elsewhere. In fact, as you can see from the images, they were stolen from the Iraq Museum, and collectors would do well to study closely their enigmatic smiles.
The smallest, most exquisite--and thus easily smuggled--pieces were in Room 104. They include an ancient Sumerian plate inlaid with shell depicting rampant beasts in primeval forests and dominoes or dice from a time almost before the beginning of time.
The white marble mask of a Sumerian goddess--No. 1 on the most-wanted list and also stored in Room 104--dates back almost 5,000 years. In an age of totemic art, this was as naturalistic as the sculptor could make it. Deep ridges in the head may even have been meant to hold a wig. The effect is literally alien, otherworldly, presaging by five millennia Hollywood images of visitors from distant planets.
A tablet carved from ivory, small enough to slip in the pocket of a fishing vest or cargo pants, shows a lion sinking its teeth into the throat of a naked Nubian slave. It was probably meant to symbolize the raging empire of Assyria 2,800 years ago conquering the domains of ancient Egypt. Another ivory artifact is the back of a chair, carved with gorgeous bas-relief deities at Nimrud in the same period.
Perhaps these pieces simply disappeared into the street markets of Baghdad's "Ali Babas." But that's not likely. Any collector, ethical or not, would covet such art with a lust to rival the voracious ancient gods, and some collectors, or the professional thieves who service them, may have been waiting years for this opportunity.
Now, at least, with the most-wanted list on the Web, no dealer or collector can plausibly claim he simply just didn't know what he was buying. As Matthew Bogdanos would say, recovering the art involves "a process." It should involve some prosecutions, too.