Sunday, September 26, 2010

Le Monde report on Iraq National Museum

A new article in Le Monde retraces mostly already covered ground, but does shed a little additional light on the Iraq National Museum's pathetically underfunded and understaffed initiative to recover its stolen antiquities:

Au premier étage, nous montons voir Abbas K. Abbas, patron du département de recherche des antiquités disparues. Le sympathique quinquagénaire moustachu ne cache pas son désarroi. Il est chargé de scanner la presse mondiale et le maximum de catalogues des salles d'enchères pour essayer de repérer les ventes d'objets volés dans son pays. Pour effectuer ce travail de titan, il a trois employés (un seul lit l'anglais), deux ordinateurs antédiluviens et "pas de budget" pour se rendre sur le lieu d'une vente suspecte.
The Iraqi government should be funding this (as they should be funding the antiquities police), of course, and it is just one more sign of the government's negligence, incompetence, or perhaps corruption with regard to its own cultural patrimony. But in the case of the museum, the largest source of funding in the past few years was not the Iraqi government but the Bush administration's last-minute $17 million. Presumably those delivering the money were also helping the museum officials figure out how to use it best. One can only wonder why it is that so little of that funding was allocated to Abbas' department that he cannot afford even up-to-date computers, much less to fly to London or New York to examine artifacts that may be showing up at Christie's or Sotheby's. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Who Stole the Iraqi Torah, and How Did It Get Out of Iraq in the Middle of an Invasion?

One worth watching. This investigation (who, exactly, in the US is going to do the investigation is an important question) may yield some interesting insights into what was going on behind the scenes before and during the invasion to facilitate the taking of the scroll by US troops (or other authorized personnel) during a period when, we are told by defenders of the military, there were not enough troops to secure the Iraq National Museum.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Crime-scene training helps protect artifacts, archaeological sites

Crime-scene training helps protect artifacts, archaeological sites

We often think of archaeological site looting as a problem plaguing other countries that are too poor to afford to protect their sites, or lacking in the kind of cultural awareness that makes us superior to the less civilized peoples of the world. As this article makes clear, though, sites in America are being looted and we spend almost nothing to protect them. Here's the money quote from the article:

Vance, who traveled across the country for the session, said his job is hindered by a lack of manpower; he and two other officers are responsible for watching over about 3 million acres.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

U.S. Returns Iraqi Artifacts Without Thinking Much About Who Takes Them

Yet one more piece of evidence, if that were required, that the State Department dropped the ball completely by focusing its efforts on restoring the museum rather than on helping the Iraqis get their cultural policy infrastructure set up properly:

While Iraqi officials celebrated the repatriation of what they called invaluable relics — “the return of Iraq’s heritage to our house,” as the state minister of tourism and antiquities, Qahtan al-Jibouri, put it — the fate of those previously returned raised questions about the country’s readiness to preserve and protect its own treasures.
Appearing at a ceremony displaying the artifacts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie, pointedly said a previous shipment of antiquities had been returned to Iraq last year aboard an American military aircraft authorized by Gen. David H. Petraeus, only to end up missing.
“They went to the prime minister’s office, and that was the last time they were seen,” said Mr. Sumaidaie, who has worked fervently with American law enforcement officials in recent years to track down loot that had found its way into the United States.
It was not immediately clear what happened, and Mr. Sumaidaie said he had tried and failed to find out. He did not directly accuse Mr. Maliki’s government of malfeasance, but he expressed frustration that the efforts to repatriate works of art and antiquities had resulted in such confusion and mystery.
Ali al-Mousawi, a government spokesman, demanded that the American government account for the artifacts since an American military aircraft delivered them. “We didn’t receive anything,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Jibouri, one of Mr. Maliki’s advisers, said that if the relics were not somewhere in the prime minister’s custody, then they would probably be with the Ministry of Culture, which oversees the country’s museums. Its spokesman declined to comment.
Amira Edan, the director of the National Museum, said none of the objects had been returned to her collection, which is where, she said, they all belonged.

How do earrings from one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of the 20th c. end up on the auction block at Christie's?

The story in yesterday's papers about the return of artifacts to Iraq has more facets than the Hope Diamond. One is noted in Jane Arraf's Christian Science Monitor story:

The earrings were found after they offered for sale at auction at Christie’s in New York last December. The catalog listed them as having been acquired by the owner before 1969, the year before a UNESCO convention made it more difficult to trade in antiquities.

The earrings were recognized by Iraqi archaeologists as part of the treasures of Nimrud, excavated in 1989 when an Iraqi team discovered a royal tomb overlooked by previous British excavations. They were believed stolen from the Baghdad Museum before the collection was put into safekeeping in bank vaults before the 1991 war with the US over Mr. Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Christie’s, which had put opening bids at $45,000 to $65,000 for the earrings, withdrew them after the Iraq Embassy launched a formal claim.
As Arraf notes, the Nimrud treasures are "considered one of the most spectacular finds of the 20th century, on a scale of the gold found in King Tut’s tomb." One would think such objects would be easily recognized by experts. And yet, somehow, they appear at auction at Christie's with a phony provenance. Either Christie's authenticators are incompetent, or Christie's is simply leaving the task of spotting illegitimate antiquities to the archaeologists. Either way, it is disgraceful.