The Guardian

The Guardian May 21, 2003


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Collecting loot

Seven thousand years ago, in the fertile valley between the Tigris and 
Euphrates rivers, in what is today Iraq, modern civilisation was born. Here 
people developed the first writing (in cuneiform on clay tablets). Here 
they invented the wheel.

The relics and artefacts from that period and that region are part of the 
world's cultural and historical heritage. Thousands of archaeological 
discoveries had been carefully unearthed over the last century and a half 
by scholars, adventurers and straight-out treasure seekers.

Initially they were carted off to the museums of the Western imperialist 
powers, or sold to the rich tourists and collectors from those countries.

But in Iraq, as in other Third World countries, these archaeological 
treasures have in more recent times been jealously protected by national 
governments concerned to put a stop to imperialism's high-handed looting of 
their history and culture.

Iraq, whose relics being the oldest are among the most valuable, took 
stringent measures to stem the despoiling of its historic sites. The trade 
in ancient objects was strictly controlled, to the fury of the wealthy 
"collectors" in the West.

During the Gulf War in 1991, between four and five thousand objects 
disappeared from Iraq's provincial museums. To protect what was left, the 
Iraqi authorities moved all the best stuff from the provincial museums into 
the national museum in Baghdad.

Some of these stolen objects are known to have subsequently appeared on the 
international "market" for ancient relics.

Only capitalism knowingly permits a trade in stolen objects to flourish. 
But, of course, this is a trade patronised by the very best people (well, 
the richest, anyway).

A generally unsympathetic article by Jane Shilling in The Times on 
the wholesale thievery from Iraq's museums for the benefit of Western 
collectors carried the truly bizarre title Iraq's looting of its own past.

Nevertheless, it splendidly characterised these "rich, acquisitive 
collectors, the proxy thieves who can never share them [the looted 
artefacts] with anyone, on account of their tainted past, but must admire 
them  gloat is probably the proper term  in private, with a furtive joy 
that must surely compromise the beauty of something made, as art generally 
is, to give pleasure freely to whoever happens to look at it".

When the current US President began his series of bellicose threats against 
Iraq, the big art dealers in the US hastily set up a lobby group, under the 
misleading name the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP). The main 
target of their lobbying: Iraq's policy of protecting its antiquities.

Inventing a new pejorative term for Iraq's laws on this matter 
("retentionist"), this classy bunch sought for ways to make it easier for 
Iraqi artefacts (regardless of how they were obtained) to enter the US. Now 
didn't that show forethought on their part?

Then, in January, still before the start of the actual war, they met with 
officials of the US Defence Department and State Department. No doubt they 
wanted to impress on the US armed forces the importance of protecting 
Iraq's antiquities. Do you think?

Maguire Gibson, from the Oriental Institute at Chicago University, 
described the ACCP to the British Spectator: "These are very, very well-
connected people. They are able to get a meeting with whoever they like, 
when they like. You know, I believe they met with the President last week.

"They are very affluent people, too. One of the leading lights is a former 
State Department man, Arthur Houghton.

"You have to understand that some of the members of their organisation are 
among the biggest collectors and dealers of illegal artefacts in the 
world...."

Curious how, as I said last week, the first wave of "looters" of Baghdad's 
National Museum of Antiquities were dressed in suits and carried mobile 
phones. Protected by a bevy of heavily armed thugs, they took the rarest 
and most precious of the treasures away in a well-organised convoy of 
vehicles.

According to Rod Liddle in The Spectator, these robbers made off 
with "some 80 percent of the institution's most cherished possessions: 
jewellery and gold and 100,000-year-old stone tools and sculptures and 
carvings, ivory furniture, tilework, textiles and coins.

"Indeed, they stole the world's few remaining artefacts from the Sumerian, 
Assyrian and Babylonian cultures", including a mere eighty thousand 
Sumerian cuneiform tablets! Only after this special gang had gone did "the 
mob" arrive, to pick over the remains unmolested by the powerful US Army.

Interpol's Karl-Heinz Kind, its specialist officer for art and antiquity 
trafficking, was quoted in Britain's Sunday Telegraph as early as April 20 
saying "We already have reports of exhibits being offered for sale in 
Switzerland and Japan."

Neil Brody, head of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at Cambridge 
University, says: "All the material looted from Baghdad was highly 
saleable, both to unscrupulous institutional museums and also to private 
collectors."

According to The Spectator, Brody too "believes the raid on the 
Iraqi National Museum was planned well in advance, probably before the war 
had even started."

On April 19, Rod Liddle in The Spectator mused, "It's just possible, 
isn't it, that those artefacts looted at gunpoint from the Iraqi National 
Museum will find their way into the hands of those private collectors who 
are so energetically represented by the American Council for Cultural 
Policy?

"I suppose it's going way too far to say that the Americans are rapacious 
crooks out to make as much money as they can  corporately and 
individually  from a country which they have enthusiastically destroyed.

"But I wonder if it isn't beginning rather to look like that, particularly 
if you're an Arab."

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