Monday, June 16, 2003

How many items were looted from the Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad? Was it:

  1. 3,000 items

  2. 3,000 items, but only 33 world-class pieces

  3. more than 1,000 items

  4. 'several thousand' items

  5. 25 items

  6. 6,000, 10,000 or 13,867 items;

  7. 'something in the range of thousands'

  8. 46 items

  9. the original estimate of 170,000 items; or

  10. there was hardly any looting or theft at all (but see here)?


Obviously, some estimates are of the exhibits of a spectacular or renowned type that would be exhibited up front in the museum, and some include all items stolen or missing. It is completely wrong to limit the damage estimate to the most showy items, as the most historically or archaeologically important items may not be all that spectacular. Since it appears that there was an effort by the thieves to take or destroy records of the collection, probably to make it difficult to detect the sale of stolen items in the international market, all estimates have to be open to question, especially in these relatively early days (the most considered estimate of the losses appears to be here - an outstanding site!). The American press is trying to spin the lower numbers of missing items to hide the culpability of the Pentagon (and see here and here). The bottom line remains:

  • the Pentagon was put on alert months before the attack on Iraq of the specific danger of looting to this particular museum, and promised to protect it;

  • days before the looting, assistance to protect the museum from looting was requested of local American military units;

  • American military units visited the site, temporarily scared away the looters, and then left;

  • there is some reason to believe that American soldiers actually encouraged some of the looters;

  • while there was looting done by the Iraqi poor, it appears likely that the most important items were stolen by professional art thieves, probably stealing to order from a list of items provided to them, and these thieves apparently were aware that there would be a window of time in which the American military would not be there (and we have to bear in mind that on January 24 members of the American Council for Cultural Policy, an association of American collectors and dealers, met with Pentagon and State Separtment officials to argue for a post-war loosening of Iraqi export restrictions on the basis that existing Iraqi law is too 'retentionist' and that antiquities will be safer in American museums and private collections than in Iraq);

  • the excuse that the American military could not guard the site because it was the site of Iraqi fighters was another Pentagon lie;

  • the actual count of items is unimportant but what is important is that some of the most significant items in the history of human civilization have been lost due to the negligence or wrong-doing of the American military, who breached their duties under international law; and

  • the American military can take no credit for those items that were protected, as they were all saved by the actions of Iraqis who anticipated that they would get no help from the Americans.


It appears that the grand commotion made about the looting, including what were overblown numbers, may have had the beneficial effect of making it more difficult to sell the stolen items on the international art market. The big issue now is preventing the ongoing looting at various archaeological sites in Iraq, most of which are being left completely unguarded by the Americans.

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