Experts to Draft Iraq Antiquities Plan

The looting of Iraqi museums is the worst calamity to befall any national art collection since World War II, the director of the British Museum said Tuesday as some of the world’s top curators met to draft a plan to recover the treasures.

The British Museum, which is organizing the gathering along with the U.N. heritage organization UNESCO (news – web sites), said international experts would announce an assistance program to help Iraq (news – web sites) recover from wartime looting that devastated the country’s priceless collections of Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian artifacts.

Experts from the Louvre in Paris, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Russia’s Hermitage and the Berlin Museums will hear a report from British Museum Near East curator John Curtis, who returned Monday after a week in Iraq, and from Iraqi Donny George, director of research at the looted National Museum in Baghdad.

“This is without question the greatest disaster to a national collection since the Second World War,” British Museum director Neil MacGregor told BBC radio.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein (news – web sites)’s government earlier this month, looters stole and smashed priceless archaeological treasures from the Baghdad museum. The museum in the northern city of Mosul also was pillaged, and Baghdad’s Islamic Library, which holds one of the oldest surviving copies of the Quran, was set on fire.

Many Iraqis criticized U.S. troops for doing little to stop the theft, and MacGregor also questioned their role.

“It’s very extraordinary … that with American troops in Baghdad, American troops almost at the gates of the museum, this was allowed to happen,” he said.

MacGregor said it was unclear whether the looting had been carried out to order by thieves acting for private art collectors.

“It’s clear that there is a flourishing trade in illicit Mesopotamian antiquities, so I think a lot of it would have been stolen for the trade,” he told the BBC. “That’s not the same as for a specific collector.”

Ancient Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq — was the cradle of civilization, and Iraq’s museums held priceless, millennia-old collections.

Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said Monday that Iraqis had begun to respond to American appeals to return the looted goods. Over the weekend, U.S. forces had began broadcasting radio messages offering rewards for the antiquities’ return.

The U.S. Central Command said more than 100 items had been handed in, including priceless manuscripts, a 7,000-year-old vase and one of the oldest recorded bronze bas relief bulls.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Franks said it did not appear that the looting had been carried out by an organized network of thieves.

“We’re apt to find where an individual person decided he or she could take some of the antiquities and save them for a rainy day,” he said from coalition headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

But Prof. Peter Stone, who advised the British military on Iraq’s historic sites, disagreed with Franks, saying some of the items were probably stolen for specific clients.

“I would be very surprised if it were not the case that some of it had been stolen to order — although I have no cast-iron evidence of that,” said Stone, an archaeology expert at Newcastle University.

Ancient Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq — was the cradle of civilization, and Iraq’s museums held priceless, millennia-old collections. Among the items believed lost from the Baghdad museum are an alabaster vase from 3200 B.C. and bronze reliefs from 3500 B.C.

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Published in: on April 30, 2003 at 3:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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