A Nation's Past Wiped Out in a Flash

Why the looting of Baghdad's museum seems premeditated

Whatever their tribal and religious differences, all Iraqis can be proud of one thing: On their soil modern civilization was born. Cities were invented in what is now Iraq. So was writing and even an early form of democracy. So it doesn't sound overblown when Elizabeth C. Stone, a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, ranks the looting of the Baghdad Museum with the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria or the rape of Aztec and Inca cultures by the conquistadors. Iraq, says Stone, is a country "whose past has been decapitated."

Putting the pieces back together won't be easy. Although most art dealers publicly denounce the trade in stolen objects, many continue to buy and sell works of dubious origin. There is a well-developed global network that specializes in stolen antiquities, and while some objects have been recovered in the past, most remain out of sight in private hands. "There's always a market for greedy collectors," says Kenson Kwok, director of the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore. "It doesn't matter to them if they can't show it to anyone."

In this case, say experts, the sheer rarity of the objects will almost certainly fuel demand. The collection at the Baghdad Museum included one of the first representations of a human face, plus thousands of cuneiform tablets and other objects that bear witness to everyday life thousands of years ago. Experts say that up to 170,000 objects were lifted and that on the black market they could fetch from $5 for small items to $2 million for the best stuff. "When was the last time any of us saw great Sumerian art come on the market?" asks New York art dealer Andrew Kahane, who deplores the looting. "It's extraordinarily rare."

That may explain why the thievery seemed so well-organized. It was almost as if the perpetrators were waiting for Baghdad to fall to make their move. Gil J. Stein, a professor of archeology at the University of Chicago, which has been conducting digs in Iraq for 80 years, believes that dealers ordered the most important pieces well in advance. "They were looking for very specific artifacts," he says. "They knew where to look."

So where did the stolen art go? Knowledgeable dealers and scholars say a few well-informed and unscrupulous Iraqis probably arranged for poorly paid "mules" to truck the pieces through the trackless desert and across the porous borders into Jordan, Syria, or Turkey. From there, the objects can be easily shipped by air to shady international dealers. Typically, the works are intentionally mislabeled, with their museum ID numbers stripped off, to evade detection.

Over time, such pieces acquire what's known in the art world as "good provenance," or seeming legitimacy. Initially, people who buy the objects will make up histories for them. As the antiquities pass through several more hands, the trail becomes increasingly murky. Eventually, says Anna J. Kisluk, New York-based director of art services at the Art Loss Register, a London-based organization that tracks stolen and missing art, "a collector may end up acquiring one of these works not knowing it was looted."

It probably helps the recovery effort that some of the pieces are too well-known to find buyers. One is the Lady of Warka, an alabaster face that's one of the earliest representations of the human form. The Art Loss Register has offered to add information about the looted collection to its database, allowing dealers, museums, and auction houses to check whether a piece is stolen. "Everybody is going to shun this material," insists Ashton Hawkins, president of the American Council for Cultural Policy, an advocacy group for private collectors and museums.

But it seems clear that most of the works will disappear into private vaults. It doesn't help that the looters burned museum files. As a result, a clear picture of what was taken may never materialize. And while some pieces looted from other museums, including Kabul's main gallery, plundered in 1993 when the Taliban seized power, are eventually recovered, most are not. That's why the loss for Iraq -- and the world -- is incalculable.

By Jack Ewing in Frankfurt and Joseph Weber in Chicago, with Michael Shari in Singapore

— With assistance by Michael Shari

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.