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Bogdanos "Thieves of Baghdad" reviewed

Peter K. Tompa, a Washington attorney specializing in cultural property issues, reviews the recently released chronicle by Matthew Bogdanos about Baghdad Museum looting during the invasion of Iraq. This review was originally published in the March 2006 issue of The Celator.

By Peter K. Tompa, The Celator |
March 22, 2006

In an engaging but ultimately unsatisfying book, Matthew Bogdanos chronicles his investigation of the looting of the Iraq Museum. Getting to the point, however, takes time. Bogdanos is the proud son of working class parents, born and bred in New York City. His father was of Greek descent, and Bogdanos obviously relishes in recounting his well deserved sense of pride in his heritage as well as his own smarts in working his way up from the family restaurant onto law school, a masters degree in Classics from Columbia University, a position as prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office, and a commission in the US Marine Corps Reserves. Nevertheless, all the relentless self-promotion severely detracts from the important story Bogdanos has to tell. Under the circumstances, one only wishes Bogdanos took more seriously his own statement in the Author’s note that “The Marine Corps doesn’t like people who go to war and write books about themselves. Neither do I.”

Luckily, Bogdanos ultimately returns to his promised topic. After 9/11, Bogdanos parlayed a counterterrorism assignment while on active duty into an investigation into the well publicized looting of the Iraq Museum. He explains much of the vandalism and theft as symptomatic of popular outrage against Ba’athist State oppression. The Iraq Museum simply was not a place to which the general public went to view the glories of Iraq’s past. Indeed, strangely for a public institution, it was only open once in the entire decade between the First and Second Gulf Wars - on Saddam’s birthday, April 28, 2000. (p. 213.) The sad reality of Saddam’s Iraq - where museum professionals were required to be slavish servants of the regime “or else” - is best seen in one of the few mistakes Bagdonos admits to in his entire book. In one memorable passage, Bogdanos recounts how a photo op went very wrong. Bagdanos had set up the photo op to capture local people returning a trove of manuscripts they had guarded. However, it turns out that the crowd (but not the clueless Americans) identified the Iraqi museum professional to whom the manuscripts were to be returned as one of their Ba’athist oppressors. (pp. 160-163.) Ultimately, the situation was defused, but not before some scary moments, that might have left U.S. forces with yet another public relations disaster on their hands.
Not surprisingly, Bogdanos is at his best defending the actions of the U.S. military and debunking the outrageous exaggerations about losses at the Museum that even now continue to be propagated in the international press. Based on Bogdanos’ work, it should now be evident that the Museum was turned into a fighting position for the Special Revolutionary Guard detachments, that the U.S. military’s initial armored thrusts (“Thunder Runs”) through Baghdad could not have “saved” the Museum without destroying it, and that the Museum was probably secured as soon as militarily practicable given the small size of the attacking forces. Bogdanos also does equally well detailing what was lost, how he believes the losses occurred (a small mob of undiscriminating looters combined with an undetermined number of much more sophisticated culprits), what was recovered and what remains to be found. He concludes at page 270, “Of the forty objects stolen from the public galleries and restoration rooms, fifteen have been recovered, including five of the finest pieces the museum possessed…3,138 pieces from the aboveground storage rooms [a figure that may rise as items are inventoried] [were lost] with 3,037 … recovered… 10,686 objects stolen from underground [storage] - 5,144 of which are highly prized seals - only 2,307 have been recovered. Part of the problem… is that the entire haul from the basement could fit in one large backpack. Looking at the recoveries of the items stolen from the basement in another way, 911 of the objects were recovered inside Iraq, and 1,396 internationally. Altogether, then, approximately 5,400 objects have been recovered. Moreover, another 62,000 pieces were “found” in other locations [having been moved from the Museum before the war.]” [Luckily, the Iraq Museum’s collection of approximately 100,000 coins remained intact because the thieves lost the keys to their storage cabinets in the darkness and confusion.]

Much of Bogdanos’ success in retrieving many significant artifacts probably stems from his “no questions asked” policy if an item was returned. On the other hand, as a result of this amnesty, Bogdanos failed to conduct any serious interrogations of museum employees - even when missing items mysteriously turned up again in the museum. (p. 164.) Thus, we are left speculating about who had the keys to the underground storage vaults and why some of the Museum’s most important items happened to be gathered in a place where they could be quickly removed from the premises. This, while some of the biggest “Thieves of Baghdad” may very well still be employed at the Iraq Museum! Of course, determining what was and what was not missing was made all the more difficult by the Iraq Museum’s poor inventory system, which was made even worse by the destruction of some records during the looting.

Almost as troubling, Bogdanos stereotypes collectors and dealers in manner that suggests he received a tutorial from some of the most “hard line” elements within the archaeological community. (p. 238.) Specifically, Bogdanos buys into the claim that some big ticket items were stolen based some long standing orders from moneyed collectors (p. 215) and then hypes a supposed link between collectors and terrorists. (p. 249.) It should give some pause to the reader that the source for the former allegation is none other than Ahmed Chalabi, the discredited purveyor of hyped information about weapons of mass destruction, while the latter claim appears to be based solely on one seizure of some 30 artifacts from some suspected insurgents. Again, Bogdanos would do well to heed his own warnings about the impact of exaggeration on the credibility of certain members of the archaeological community. (p. 274.)

In the end, Bogdanos sums up his view as follows: “One of the unpleasant truths to emerge from Baghdad is that, in assessing blame for the looting there, and for the confusion that followed, nobody gets off scot-free - not the military, not the press, not the law enforcement, not the archaeologists, not the former regime, and not the staff. And in the sale of stolen items, we find the same widespread distribution of guilt among scholars, museum directors, dealers and private collectors. ‘When everyone’s culpable, is anyone guilty?’” (p. 279.) While one might agree with this assessment up to a point, I for one wish Bogdanos would be far more careful before making sweeping accusations against collectors, dealers and museum directors. Indeed, because the much anticipated influx of stolen Iraqi artifacts into the western art market has yet to materialize;1 such claims seem to be nothing short of irresponsible. But then, again, Bogdanos has a book to sell, a new mission to set up a “stolen antiquities” unit in the Manhattan DA’s office, and even a movie in the works. Under the circumstances, a less provocative claim simply might not do.

1 See e.g., Guy Gugliotta, “Looted Iraqi Artifacts Slow to Surface,” The Washington Post, Nov. 8, 2005, at A 1.

book review
baghdad museum
peter k. tompa
matthew bogdanos

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