Hunt continues for illegal antiquities

Three years after he first stood in a dark, hot vault in Baghdad's National Museum, Col. Matthew Bogdanos's mission is far from complete.

Colonel Bogdanos, a marine reservist, led the investigation into who stole some of the world's most valuable Mesopotamian artifacts in the wake of the Iraqi invasion. He wrote a book about the experience, and he now plans to return to his job in the Manhattan district attorney's office, where he wants to lead the charge against the global trade in illegal antiquities - many of them looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

"The trade in illegal antiquities is a global criminal enterprise," he says during an interview at the American Association of Museums' annual conference in Boston. "In order to combat a global criminal enterprise, you need a global response. You can't do it piecemeal."

A hardened prosecutor who had long ago gotten used to bloody crime scenes, Bogdanos says he found himself overwhelmed by the scale of avarice in the world of illegal antiquities. "I have always felt shrimp-sized in the ocean of history," says Bogdanos, who is also a classics scholar. "I'm beginning to feel even smaller because now this ocean's got waves and currents and sharks."

No one knows how much the global trade in illegal antiquities is worth, Bogdanos says, but estimates venture into billions of dollars.

Out of active duty and returning to prosecuting, he now tours the world and has spoken to museum and university audiences and government officials almost 100 times in 45 cities and nine countries. His goal, he says, is to get people to care enough about the loss of cultural artifacts that they want to do something to stop it.

"We don't need a message that resonates with academics or members of the archaeological community," Bogdanos says. "We need a message that resonates with the average individual, who may or may not have a college education, who may or may not have ever been to a museum."

Perhaps increased public awareness would lead to concrete steps to protect antiquities. Bogdanos wants those steps to include a commission, formed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to continue the Iraq Museum investigation.

Bogdanos also wants a more coordinated effort to track antiquities as they move across borders. Inspectors could take digital pictures of suspicious objects and send them in real-time to Interpol. Not only do authorities have evidence that the illegal-antiquities trade helps fund the insurgency in Iraq, but it is also highly organized, Bogdanos says.

To move "a stolen antiquity from an archaeological site in the middle of the night to a Manhattan townhouse - there is some serious organization here, and it's pretty eye-opening," he says.

The level of pillaging that is taking place frustrates archaeologists. "We have aerial photographs and satellite photographs - it's just absolutely horrendous what has happened," says Piotr Michalowski, a professor in the Near Eastern Studies department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Whole cities are being dug up and disappearing off the face of the earth."

The number of archaeological sites being excavated in Iraq has risen in the past decade. Today, some 2,600 guards from Iraq's security forces are charged with protecting about 10,000 sites.

"We really are talking about more archaeological dirt being moved in Iraq certainly in the last 10 years than ever before, perhaps even just in the last three years," says Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Antiquities stolen in Iraq have not shown up in the market, says Professor Stone, who suspects they are hidden in warehouses somewhere. "We're talking about major ancient cities that are completely looted," she says. "We're losing everything from the houses, and everything from the temples, and everything from the palaces, and we don't know what we're losing."

About 5,500 stolen artifacts from the Iraq Museum have been recovered, Bogdanos says. At least 7,000 are still missing. In his book, "Thieves of Baghdad," the royalties of which he is donating to the museum, Bogdanos tells how he and his team made the precarious journey from Kuwait to the museum on April 21, 2003, almost two weeks after US forces entered central Baghdad.

Because the Republican Guard was holed up at the museum, there was little US troops could have done during the first four days of the invasion, when "the vast majority of thefts took place," Bogdanos says. But after the museum staff informed US military officials that the Republican Guard was gone, it still took four days for US troops to arrive, a delay which Bogdanos calls "inexcusable."

At that point, Bogdanos's team sifted through evidence in the ransacked museum to determine who had taken valuable artifacts.

It also established an amnesty program so locals could bring back stolen items without fear of punishment. The program has reportedly recovered almost 2,000 pieces worldwide. Raids and seizures account for almost 3,500 recovered items. Among the recovered items: the Mask of Warka, thought to be the first depiction of a human face in sculpture form.

"The next time that there are any plans to go to war with another country," Bogdanos says, "the protection of cultural property will be addressed in those plans. Of this you may be certain."

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