Hunt widens for Iraq’s looted treasure

Hunt widens for Iraq’s looted treasure

Digby Lidstone reports on efforts to find Iraq's stolen antiquities and halt the global trade in such precious artefacts.

In 1901 a group of French archaeologists uncovered a 2,700-year-old Babylonian tablet in what is now Iran. Not only is the Hammurabi codex the first example of a written legal code; it is also the oldest known looted artefact, plundered from ancient Mesopotamia. "The looting of antiquities has been going on for a very long time in Iraq," says Dr Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University, New York.

Dr Stone and Donny George, former head of the national museum in Baghdad, are at the forefront of an international effort to prevent the trade in stolen antiquities from Iraq. Some 15,000 objects were looted from the Baghdad museum during the 2003 invasion, and these are only a small proportion of the artefacts taken from an estimated 12,000 archaeological sites in Iraq.

The recent interest in heritage tourism in Iraq and other Gulf states has added vigour to the campaign to return stolen pieces. Unfortunately, archaeologists say, it has also whetted the appetite of private collectors in the region, and could provoke a resurgence in the illicit trade.

"Collecting antiquities is often seen as a hallmark of being a member of high society, but provenance is often overlooked in the process," says Dr Stone. "What the wealthy [of the Gulf region] are doing is emulating the spending patterns of the west, and they're liable to pick up some of those bad habits in the process." Until recently, it was thought the global trade in stolen Iraqi artefacts had fizzled out. Dealers in London and New York, the most active legal markets for antiquities, say stern legislation and self-policing by traders and auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's have reduced the traffic to a trickle.

"The pressure on the open trade in antiquities has been so fierce that everyone has been extremely careful," says James Ede, former chairman of the UK Antiquities Dealers' Association. "It is simply not worth handling Mesopotamian artefacts these days unless they have absolutely secure provenance."

Dr Stone says the problem seems to have translated to the supply side of the market. Satellite imagery of Iraq reveals some 15.75 sq km of looting holes, equivalent to about 15 percent of all archaeological sites in Iraq. But most of these date to the time of the invasion.

"The looting appears to have died down after December 2003, so it looks like the international market really was closed down," she says. "The question now is where all these artefacts have gone."

Many are believed to be hidden in Iraq or neighbouring countries. This theory is supported by recent discoveries. In October, Lebanese customs officials seized 57 Iraqi objects being smuggled across the border from Syria. Customs officers in Dubai say that in November they found more than 120 stolen pieces being brought into the emirate by boat.

In Iraq itself the army broke a smuggling ring in the south in April, arresting seven thieves and recovering 235 Babylonian and Sumerian items, according to the US military. While these successes testify to the vigilance of the authorities, they suggest a worrying trend. "Most of the demand still seems to come from the west, but increasingly you hear of collectors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE," says a European archaeologist based in Bahrain.

"In one house I visited, the owners had turned a sarcophagus into a sofa and used the pieces of a lead coffin to line the walls." As with any black market, estimates of the trade in stolen antiquities vary widely. Many items are sold online, making them hard to trace. Colin Renfrew, an archaeologist at Cambridge University, has put an estimate of $3bn on the international trade. Others believe the figure is much lower. "The open market is not worth more than about $200m a year, so any suggestion that the illegal trade might run into billions beggars belief," says Ede. "The trouble is, by concentrating minds on the trade in antiquities, people are ignoring the real threat to the heritage of the Middle East, which is from vandals and developers."

In northern Iraq the Assyrian site of Ninevah has been buried beneath urban sprawl, while much of the ancient city was destroyed during renovations of the Nebi Younis mosque in the 1990s. Bahrain, Oman, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia are all trying to preserve sites by getting them listed by Unesco, the world heritage body. "The problem is not only looters, and the damage they cause to our monuments," says Abdullah Al Saud, director-general of the National Museum in Riyadh. "It is also developers and people who spray graffiti and leave rubbish in these sites."

The Saudi museum is preparing an exhibition of stolen artefacts recovered in the past year from foreign governments and collectors. And the hunt for lost heritage continues in Iraq. Following the partial reopening of the Baghdad museum in February, an amnesty was extended for government officials, who returned 531 stolen items. "Many private collectors argue they are helping to preserve their heritage," says Dr Stone. "Personally, I'd like to see the trade banned outright."

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