Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Antiquities from Iraq: Funding for Insurgents?

One of the key things to emerge from the UNESCO Athens Conference is the link between looted archaeological sites and the purchase of arms for the insurgency (Elena Becatoros, "Artifact Smuggling Aids Iraq Insurgents", AP, March 18, 2008).

In an interview given in Athens Marine Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos claimed:
The Taliban are using opium to finance their activities in Afghanistan ... Well, they don't have opium in Iraq ... What they have is an almost limitless supply of is antiquities. And so they're using antiquities.
Part of the evidence comes from the recovery in 2006 of antiquities, stolen from the National Museum, in bunkers alongside "weapons, ammunition and uniforms".

The Art Loss Register (ALR) has responded in a way that shows its staff do not understand the issues surrounding the looting of antiquities:
Antonia Kimbell, an art trade manager at The Art Loss Register — which maintains a database on stolen, missing and looted art — said she had yet to see concrete evidence connecting the trade in illegal antiquities and insurgent financing.

"We haven't come across a direct link," she said.
No doubt somebody forgot to register the pieces with the ALR database before they were buried several thousand years ago.

But the key issue raised by Bogdanos is who is buying the antiquities?

I doubt museums or private collectors are acquiring things direct from Iraq.

So presumably pieces are being supplied directly to dealers. And who is purchasing recently surfaced Mesopotamian antiquities? And will they claim that they have been "acquired legally"?

Bogadanos has certainly supplied some food for thought in this anniversary week.


Stuart said...

It is always amusing to hear people make statements like there is no evidence linking the selling of antiquities to funding for the insurgents. I'm not an expert but I'm sure there is a ton of evidence linking the two, all one has to do is be in the position and have the resources to uncover the connection. And so the cycle continues five years later.

I feel it also important to remember the events that occurred at the beginning of the invasion. I made an eight minute documentary about the looting of the Iraqi National Museum. I had the good fortune of interviewing Dr. Donny George, the former director of the Museum, and learned a great deal about this tragic, historical, and still misunderstood event. Below is a link to the video. I hope it is insightful about one aspect of the this war that is still raging five years later.
-Stuart Draper

David Gill said...

I think it reflects the fact that some of the people making policy on antiquities and cultural property do not understand the issues.
Thank you for sending this link.
Best wishes

Andrew said...

I visit European antiquities dealers approximately once a year to look at their stock and talk about their new acquisitions. I am a former antiquities curator and am interested to see what is around (unlike the AIA, I think that objects with no archaeological findspot need as much attention as possible). What is interesting, and quite encouraging, is that very little Middle Eastern material appears to be on the market at this time, and what there is either usually has recorded provenance stretching back over at least 10 years or is an obvious forgery. Material offered for sale on websites is either junk or forged.

David Gill said...

Thank you for your comment. It is clear from the "Medici Conspiracy" that antiquities can be stored for many years before they are released onto the market. I am reminded of the words of some collectors (relating to archaeological material from Cyprus but also alluding to Iraq): "my strategy would be to keep as low a profile as possible".

I am sure that Col. Matthew Bogdanos does not make these claims lightly. Sites have been, and are being, looted in Iraq. The Baghdad Museum has been looted. And where are the objects? When will they (re)appear?

Andrew said...

You provide however no proof that these objects are being sold on a large scale, or that they are being stored somewhere (and you know that nothing ever remains a secret in the art world!). The major stolen objects from the Iraq Museum, like the Warka Vase, are the ones that at the time of the looting were frequently said to have been taken directly for specific collectors - many of these have been recovered, and from varying locations which suggest that their theft was ad hoc, not programmed.

If dealers have - as you imply - a vested interest in keeping quiet about their holdings, then Bogdanos (and you) have just as great an interest in claiming that looting funds the insurgency.

Peter Tompa said...


A statement from Micah Garen, a journalist who investigated this issue, calls into question Bogdanos' assertions. It can be found in a roundtable interview at:

As Donnie George, another paricipant in the roundtable, also has made similar assertions as those made by Bogdanos, it is of note that George did not take the opportunity to contest the journalist's statement.

The other participants in the roundtable are Brian Rose of the AIA and another former milatary officer who was assigned to help Iraq Museum get itself back on its feet. Here is the pertinent part of the discussion:

Rose: Cori, from your perspective, when you were there, was there much discussion about whether the sale of artifacts was being used to fund the insurgency or fund al-Qaida in Iraq?

Wegener: Not as much at that time. I think it wasn't until after I had left, which was March 2004, that I really started to notice news stories about that and that that was a possibility. As I said, I was really pretty much focused on the museum for my part of the mission there.

Garen: I think this is an important point about the link between looting and terrorism, and I know that that was made in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, but we were actually the ones that discovered that potential link. We never published it. We were freelancing for the New York Times. We never wrote a story about it because there's no proof. And I think it was a bit of a red herring. You see slogans in support of the Madhi Army scrawled all over the archaeological sites, and stuff like that, but the connection was never a direct connection.


Peter Tompa

seatsonthestreets said...

It's quite possible that a more disturbing element is becoming apparent here. If one goes by the standard percentage of the price the base-level looter gets (from “Pity the Poor Middlemen”, Culture without Context Issue 3, Autumn 1998) less than 1% of the price of the pieces are going towards the actual looters. Does the possibility that the lootings are funding the insurgents mean that they have managed to take over more of the market hierarchy, or does is it possible that more private dealers are willing to deal directly with the looters?
Aaron Rosenthal

David Gill said...

Micah Garen's comments are also telling:
"We were filming 200 looters a night working at sites such as Umma, which are some of the most important sites in the world. And they were just digging with impunity. They were actually just walking around. People were selling cigarettes to the looters. They had electrical generators, lights going on all night."

Where have these objects gone? Who has them?

Garen is describing organised looting.

David Gill said...

See also Tom Flynn's take on this story:

An amphora attributed to the manner of the Princeton painter

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