Images of the looted archaeological museum in Baghdad in the wake of the second Gulf War alerted the initial community to the issue of archaeological material passing into the market. There were swift moves to protect cultural property; these included the UN Security Council Resolution 1483 to Protect Iraq's Heritage.
Professional bodies such as the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) have kept a close watch on developments (see Earthwatch for Iraq). Professor Brian Rose, president of the AIA, made a trip to Iraq in April 2009 to see for himself the damage sustained to archaeological sites as well as the objects in the Iraq Museum (see story from Archaeology magazine). Indeed his report was optimistic: "A girls' school group entered the museum as we were leaving, and it was good to hear the halls filled with their laughter and enthusiasm."
Some 15,000 objects were stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad during 2003. Some 6000 pieces have been recovered in various countries (for example, United Arab Emirates, Germany, Jordan) and are in the process of being returned; the Iraq Museum reopened in February 2009. Assessments are being made of the scale of looting at archaeological sites. John Curtis of the British Museum has been able to undertake a short study in southern Iraq but conceded that damage had been sustained further north.
Iraqi antiquities continue to be offered for sale in spite of all the publicity. Professor Neil Brodie has quantified the internet sales of cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets that are likely to have been derived from Iraq (details). He counted over 300 tablets available for sale on a single day in September 2008.
In December 2008 Christie's in New York had to withdraw gold jewellery from its auction as the lot appears to have been derived from Iraq (details). Other objects have been seized after appearing at an antiquities fair at Maastricht (details).
Within the last month there has been a major story in the German press about a gold vessel, seized from a dealer in Munich, that appears to have come from one of the royal cemeteries at Ur (details). German authorities handed it over to Michael Müller-Karpe of the Römisch-Germanische Zentralmuseum in Mainz for study. Müller-Karpe, a leading expert on metalwork from Iraq, has retained the piece at the request of the Iraqi embassy in Berlin because there are fears that the object could evade repatriation if German courts felt that there the evidence was not compelling (Andreas Ulrich, "Leichtes Spiel für die Antikenmafia", Spiegel Online 26 June 2009).
The international community—archaeologists, museum curators, dealers, collectors, and the general public—need to remain alert to the continuing problem.