Getting away with it

Despite the outrage over the widespread looting of ancient Iraqi artefacts, governments have done little to stop their trade abroad, says US investigator Matthew Bogdanos. Richard Agnew and Tamara Walid report.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  December 18, 2005

|~|baghdad-museum-200.jpg|~|Targeted: The Iraq National Museum saw widespread looting after the invasion.|~|Despite the outrage over the widespread looting of ancient Iraqi artefacts, governments have done little to stop their trade abroad, says US investigator Matthew Bogdanos. Richard Agnew and Tamara Walid report. Six weeks ago, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos was in the White House, being toasted by George W. Bush. Standing alongside various members of America’s academic community, the marine was handed a ‘National Humanities Medal’ by the US president — a reward for the work he has put into recovering looted antiquities in Iraq. But as the glasses were raised, Bogdanos couldn’t help casting his mind 8000 miles East, where the US and Iraqi government’s efforts are still failing to stem the theft of thousands of archaeological treasures. “Right now, in Iraq, I promise you someone is looting a site,” the marine reserve and New York prosecutor says. Better known before the Iraq war as the man who unsuccessfully prosecuted rapper Puff Daddy over a shooting in a New York nightclub, Bogdanos’ profile in his home country has been raised considerably over recent months. His two-year probe into the infamous looting of the Iraqi National Museum — and the subsequent publication of his book, Thieves of Baghdad — have seen him eulogised in an American media eager for good news out of Iraq. In April 2003, the classics scholar volunteered for the task of investigating the theft of around 14,000 objects stolen during the anarchy that erupted as coalition forces advanced on Baghdad. Together with museum staff and his team of 13 recruits, Bogdanos succeeded in recovering many of the lost treasures, some of which stretch from as far back as 10,000 years ago, when the foundations of human civilisation were laid in what was then Mesopotamia. But with more than 8000 pieces from the museum still missing, and thousands of archaeological sites across the country still vulnerable to raids, Bogdanos says he could have done with some back-up. “If you’re talking about an international investigation, there is none,” he says. “There is simply no coordinated investigation internationally. There hasn’t been one for a host of reasons — a mix of a lack of will and a lack of resources, as well as the political realities and sensitivities that tend to make governments not want to do anything to do with Iraq. It’s like Iraq has become radioactive.” As news of the looting broke in April 2003, those in charge of the invasion came in for massive criticism for not pre-empting the move. Several international initiatives were then launched to upgrade the museum’s facilities and improve its inventory, as well as to train security guards and aid the conservation of the thousands of sites spread across Iraq. UNESCO, which has ploughed US$8 million of funding into restoration and training initiatives, also created lists of artefacts that have been stolen and passed them onto Interpol after announcing the creation of a joint task force in 2003. Bogdanos, however, says little money has been allocated to actually tracking down lost items. “UNESCO and Interpol signed an MoU and that’s nice and I’m glad they got some good PR out of it,” he says. “But I’m talking about boots on the ground and investigators physically doing something. I don’t need any more proclamations — I could paper my office with the resolutions that have been issued by the international community.” He adds that the projects that have come to fruition have been limited in scale: “[The task force] has two people working on it and it hasn’t met in a year and a half. It’s meant to have meetings every three or four months but they haven’t met in 2005. Switzerland has never sent a rep; the UAE hasn’t and neither has Syria or Turkey. The only one in the Middle East to send a representative is Jordan. You need other people.” Where they will come from remains pretty unclear, however. Despite the outraged international reaction to the looting, not a single country, international organisation or private foundation has put up additional funding purely for investigative purposes, Bogdanos says. He is also frustrated that the FBI, the UK’s Scotland Yard and Interpol have only allocated a handful of officers to investigate the looting, and those that are working on it are responsible for tackling thefts from other countries as well. “They all seem oblivious to the self-evident fact that a stolen item cannot be restored until it has been recovered,” he says. Bogdanos says opposition to the war from many governments has affected support for attempts to tackle the looting, while countries such as Iran and Turkey, which have had historical animosities towards Iraq, have yet to acknowledge the recovery of a single antiquity. The banking and trade hubs of Switzerland and the UAE also come in for criticism for not participating in Interpol conferences or stepping up inspections — a move that Bogdanos says would threaten their revenues. “There are individuals and countries who are trying, but there is a willing and able scale. There’s willing and able; willing but not able; able but not willing; and neither — and you could put every country into one of those four. In the first, there’s the US, UK and Italy only. Those three have done the lion’s share. In the Middle East, Jordan is doing a terrific job but could use some help, more resources, technology and training.”||**|||~|thing-200.jpg|~|Found: Items retrieved included The Bassetki Statue.|~|Now he is back in New York, Bogdanos says he will return shortly to the city’s District Attorney’s Office — where he worked before the events of 9/11 persuaded him to sign up for military duty. He says he already has permission from his bosses to set up an investigative unit in Manhattan — which will focus at least partly on snaring the major private collectors and art dealers of Madison Avenue, where many Iraqi pieces are believed to have ended up. Through it, he aims to address the lack of major arrests that have been achieved since the looting began. “It is extra-labour intensive and these people have batteries of lawyers but it’s no different from any other community,” he says. “You recruit sources. Every time I hear antiquities I hear drugs. The law enforcement and public awareness approach needs to be the same. Plenty of rich people use drugs — the only thing you don’t have is the street addict. But everything else you have — the middlemen, the dealers.” He adds, with more than a little machismo: “Give me a handful of NYPD cops — that’s all that I want.” In other areas of the smuggling value chain, though, things are unlikely to be that simple. In his new role, Bogdanos will not have any legal authority outside the US. He therefore wants to pressure governments into setting up a new international task force aimed at tackling not just looted antiquities from Iraq, but also the black market for art as a whole. In his book, he outlines a four-pronged, global strategy aimed at recovering lost items, which he says would involve raising public awareness; creating a set of standards for museums, collectors and dealers; enhancing cooperation between law enforcement agencies and the art and archaeological communities; and persuading individual countries to allocate more funding. But who will control it? “There needs to be an international commission,” Bogdanos says. “We do it all the time in other areas so why can’t we do it in art? In the grander scheme of things it’s not that expensive,” he adds. Back at the problem’s source, though, numerous challenges obviously still remain — many of which Bogdanos had to overcome during his tour of duty. Once his team had set up camp at the museum in 2003, he says he was faced with complete confusion over what had been stolen, largely non-existent inventories, and widespread suspicion of his team and the museum’s staff, some of whom had been close to the Saddam regime. Exaggerated reporting of what had been stolen in the media didn’t help either, he adds. “The ones that continued to get it wrong, I can only reasonably conclude they did so because it served their purposes or purported to their views. If you do a statistical analysis of media outlets’ political positions you could predict their coverage of the looting.” But he adds: “Most media outlets have realised they goofed.” The truth is, noone knows exactly how many items have been stolen from Iraq altogether, as sites across the country are being raided everyday and the records that did exist before the war were so poorly kept. Bogdanos' team did ascertain, though, that there were at least three separate raids of the museum between 10 April and 12 April 2003, during which around 14,000 pieces were taken — not the 170,000 that was initially reported. One theft, he says, was the work of professional looters, at least one was an inside job, and one took place after the Iraqi army, which had been using the museum as a redoubt, left a door open. Through a combination of raids, an amnesty programme, and outreach to the local community, as well as several seizures abroad, 5000 of the 14,000 had been recovered by the time the mission was over. Going forward, although a Hollywood deal beckons for Bogdanos' story, he says his work in Iraq could not yet be finished. He says he has already accepted a request from the Iraqi government to return to the country, to train local law enforcement officials and help tackle the looting that is still going on. But with the continuing violence, uncertain security situation and impossible challenge of guarding the numerous archaeological sites spread all over the country, Bogdanos says it will be a long time before he is back in the White House, reporting “mission accomplished.” “Murderers are murdering innocent people,” he says, simply. “And until that ends the Iraqi government won’t be able to do much.”||**||

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