The Baghdad Museum -- What's the Real Story?

Monday, September 26, 2005
The short but honest answer is: we still don't know.

In a recent post by Roger Simon, he wrote "Remember all those reports of the mass looting of their national museum that turned out to be little more than some minor thefts (most returned), principally by the museum's own directors? Yet the media behaved as this were the mass destruction of antiquities from the cradle of civilization and the US was to blame." That's the story as I remembered it, but this was called into question by one of the commenters, which motivated me to try to do my own "truthing" here.

Here's what I found. Both The Guardian and a BBC reporter (of all people!) writing in the Times of London agree with the spirit of what Roger wrote, even if his numbers are not quite correct.

First, The Guardian.
On June 1, [Museum Director Dr. Donny] George was reported in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag as reiterating that witnesses had seen US soldiers enter the museum on April 9, stay inside two hours and leave with some objects. When asked whether he believed that the US military and international art thieves had been acting in concert, George replied that a year earlier, at a meeting in a London restaurant, someone (unnamed) had told him that he couldn't wait till he could go inside the National Museum with US soldiers and give it a good pillage - ie, yes.

So, there's the picture: 100,000-plus priceless items looted either under the very noses of the Yanks, or by the Yanks themselves. And the only problem with it is that it's nonsense. It isn't true. It's made up. It's bollocks.Not all of it, of course. There was some looting and damage to a small number of galleries and storerooms, and that is grievous enough. But over the past six weeks it has gradually become clear that most of the objects which had been on display in the museum galleries were removed before the war. Some of the most valuable went into bank vaults, where they were discovered last week. Eight thousand more have been found in 179 boxes hidden "in a secret vault". And several of the larger and most remarked items seem to have been spirited away long before the Americans arrived in Baghdad.

George is now quoted as saying that that items lost could represent "a small percentage" of the collection and blamed shoddy reporting for the exaggeration. ...On Sunday night, in a remarkable programme on BBC2, the architectural historian Dan Cruikshank both sought and found. Cruikshank had been to the museum in Baghdad, had inspected the collection, the storerooms, the outbuildings, and had interviewed people who had been present around the time of the looting, including George and some US troops. And Cruikshank was present when, for the first time, US personnel along with Iraqi museum staff broke into the storerooms.

One, which had clearly been used as a sniper point by Ba'ath forces, had also been looted of its best items, although they had been stacked in a far corner. The room had been opened with a key. Another storeroom looked as though the looters had just departed with broken artefacts all over the floor. But this, Cruikshank learned, was the way it had been left by the museum staff. No wonder, he told the viewers - the staff hadn't wanted anyone inside this room. Overall, he concluded, most of the serious looting "was an inside job".

Next, The Times, written May 8, 2005.
I went to Baghdad with a BBC team at the end of April to discover the truth of what had really happened during those few key days from April 9-16. According to all accounts, fighting raged around the museum until April 9, and it was not until April 16 that the Americans placed it under full-time protection. From April 10-12 the building was open to all, and it was during these three days that the looting took place.

Like many journalists, I was drawn to Baghdad by alarming stories, circulated around the world by museum staff within hours of the US troops’ arrival. These suggested that 170,000 items had been stolen or destroyed, and implied that America was to blame for not immediately guarding the place....What rapidly became clear on my second visit was that the pillaging was a most complex event, with no obvious villains and with truth, as ever, being the first victim in conflict....By the time I left, in early May, it had been admitted that the claim of 170,000 items lost or destroyed was an exaggeration. Quite why such a sensational claim was ever made has never been satisfactorily explained....By June the number of important items missing had been scaled down to just 32, although tens of thousands of relatively minor pieces were still missing. In the following weeks other significant items were returned or discovered during swoops, including the hugely important 5,000-year-old Warka Vase. This was the one large and valuable item stolen by a well-prepared and mysterious team during April 10-12.

George’s account of events is most interesting. He is now museum director, and has written the foreword to this book. When I met him that April he was clearly exhausted, in a state of great distress and unsure about what exactly had been stolen. Now he states that although “the looters broke through the main galleries and the store rooms, stealing and destroying everything they could get their hands on”, the toll was around 15,000 items. George also states that, as a result of international efforts, around 6,000 objects have been returned, including many from abroad with “over 600 in the United States”. Material is, he says, being recovered “almost every day” although more than 50% of what was lost is still missing. (The British Museum’s more gloomy assessment is that the toll of missing items remains at 15,000.)

I for one remain confused by what really happened.

Read the whole thing (both of them!).

And that seems to be the most definitive word on the whole business. About 32 really valuable items missing in what appears to be an inside job by some of the Baathists on the staff, although several thousand minor pieces are missing, some of which are being returned daily.

But, for comparison's sake, let's recall a few headlines on the subject, all taken from 2003-4.

"Expert Discusses Looting of Baghdad's Museum"--American University in Cairo
"US government implicated in planned theft of Iraqi artistic treasures"--World Socialist Daily
The Ransacking of the Baghdad Museum Is a Disgrace--History News Network

And so forth. Do your own Google search.


terrye said...

I read some time ago that a lot of this stuff had turned up in Europe in the hands of collectors.

We forget that the invasion was a telegraphed event and it took some weeks for the troops to get there.

My guess is people in the museum arrnaged to have things removed before the invasion.

The troops were busy getting shot at and had other things on their minds than the theft of antiquities.

I remember when soldiers found hundreds of thousands of dollars in greenbacks and turned them in.

Sorry, but if they would not steal American money, I doubt if they would steal relics.

But the people that did get hold of this stuff in the international market are the kind of people that a museum curator would know.

I say inside job and the looting story was fabricated to cover it up.

David Thomson said...

“By the time I left, in early May, it had been admitted that the claim of 170,000 items lost or destroyed was an exaggeration. Quite why such a sensational claim was ever made has never been satisfactorily explained...”

Never been satisfactorily explained? More importantly, why was this ludicrous claim so readily believed? Of course, we know the answer to this question. The MSM was seeking any excuse to criticize the Bush administration. These less than honorable folks are well aware that the truth may eventually come out. Nonetheless, the damage has already been done. President Bush’s poll numbers take a hit.

Anonymous said...

Devastating. The media specializes in stories that they think wil interest their viewers and reingorce their own overwhelimingly left-leaning worldview & that of their editors (not necesssarily in that order). Thus they are not all that particular about the veracity of their sources, especially in as challenging a reporting evvironment as Baghdad. though it has beed said before, this is why the Blog is so revolutionary: never before have they been so energetically audited. They must adapt or die.