Art Pottery, Politics and Food
Monday, June 09, 2003
Yesterday I posted about the growing difference in meaning between headline and story in many American newspapers these days.

Iraq National Museum

Today the Washington Post presents another story about the Iraq National Museum, under the headline All Along, Most Iraqi Relics Were ‘Safe and Sound’, that seems to be correcting “facts” from yesterday’s Iraq Museum dispatch while peddling a story heavy with disingenuous bluster:

The world was appalled. One archaeologist described the looting of Iraq's National Museum of Antiquities as "a rape of civilization."…Condemnation rained down on U.S. military commanders and officials in Washington for failing to stop the pillage of priceless art, while tanks stood guard at the Ministry of Oil. It was as if the coalition forces had won the war, but lost an important part of the peace and history. Apparently, it was not that bad.

I cannot for one moment imagine what reporters William Booth and Guy Gugliotta mean by “not that bad”.
The gold and ivory Treasures of Nimrud that were recovered from the vaults under the bombed Iraq Central Bank have been submerged for months in sewage!
Would William and Guy find the bombing and submersion of vaults containing some of their most valuable possessions "not that bad?"
Additionally these items and others, first mentioned by a top British Museum official quoted in the New York Times on May 6, were never included in anyone’s estimate of missing antiquities as they were never considered missing by the Museum staff and other world experts as they were either inaccessible or in the hidden vaults.
Hidden bombed vaults under the Iraq Central Bank as well as a perimeter of hidden vaults around the Iraq Museum itself:

"I said there were 170,000 pieces in the entire museum collection," said Donny George…"Not 170,000 pieces stolen." George, the director general of research and study of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and the source for the original number, said the theft of 170,000 pieces would have been almost impossible: "No, no, no. That would be every single object we have!"…George is a respected and internationally known archaeologist and administrator. He apologized for the confusion, which has caused anguish among Mesopotamia scholars and the general public alike, but essentially said it was not his fault. George conceded that during the 48 hours when his museum was being looted, he was extremely upset with the Americans.

The White Lady, 3,500BC

As framed by what I’ve read in the confused American press, the differences in this story have mostly been cultural with a large measure of American self-consciousness over the historic and cultural atrocity of the looting itself along with an odd refusal to distinguish between high value and the run of the mill historic artifacts. Mr. George has been remarkably consistent throughout the turmoil regarding the 33 plus priceless items that were promptly taken by glasscutter wielding “Westerners” as Baghdad fell to US forces.
Were culturally and politically connected people in place in Baghdad with access to swift cargo transport out of country? I don’t know.

On April 19th the head of UNESCO told the Washington Post that well-organized professional thieves stole most of the priceless artifacts looted from Baghdad's National Museum of Antiquities. On April 22 Melbourne,Australia’s reported:

Art collectors and dealers say they are already getting queries about artifacts looted from Iraq's museums, and the FBI said today at least one suspected piece had been seized at an American airport.

Iruk Vase, detail, 3,000BC

A very few members of the world’s press have explored this interesting avenue of investigation. Does it seem too difficult a task for prompt consideration by the media of a powerful occupying power?
As John Ashcroft told an Interpol conference in Lyons, France May 6th, “Criminal gangs were likely behind the looting of historical treasures during the war in Iraq.”

I have seen very few references or descriptions of membership, in the American press, to a group of art traders, calling itself the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP) that met, according to several European newspapers, in Washington on January 24, 2003 with senior Pentagon and State Department officials to discuss liberalizing “Iraq’s retentionist antiquities policy”.
Liam McDougall, an arts columnist for Scotland’s Sunday Herald said, "among [the ACCP’s] main members are collectors and lawyers with checkered histories in collecting valuable artifacts, including alleged exhibitions of Nazi loot."
It would be very interesting to discover any links between ACCP and the interests of Ahmed Chalabi.

President Bush could have taken the investigative lead by asking good friend Sheikh Saud al-Thani of Qatar about the Middle Eastern antiquities market that he dominates during his mid May White House visit. Reporting a May 6 Sotheby’s of London auction of Middle Eastern antiquities said:

Sheikh al-Thani was assumed to be the anonymous telephone bidder who paid £1.12 million ($1.79 million) for an exquisite 13th-century Persian pencase, and £901,250 for a Hispano-Mauresque gilt-bronze fountainhead in the form of a cockerel...

Bronze bust of an Akkadian King,

I have not read any account of damage to the ancient objects from the Iraq Museum except for the last paragraph of an AP report carried on the New York Times website on May 7th that said the Golden Harp of Ur was found in pieces laying with other debris on the Museum floor. This possession of an ancient princess is, or was, a 4,000 year-old wooden harp inlayed with gold, precious stones and shell. How does one recover the tiny bits of inlay that were scattered with the broken rubble on the Museum floor? It seems as impossible as resurrecting an unknown and untranslated ancient poem once inscribed onto a cuneiform tablet now crumbled to dust. Value is in the eye of the beholder.

What is or isn’t valuable, what is or isn’t damaged and how to explain the difference to someone who only sees only the gold and not the sculpture or jewelry it forms?
Someone is clearly uncomfortable to promulgate, for the second day in a row, a story as mendacious as this one in today's Washington Post no matter how the copy is larded with America’s Roman Imperial security blanket of numbers.
As we partly mentioned yesterday any discussion of overall numbers of missing is problematic as the Iraqi had diverse and inconsistent accounting systems that were almost completely destroyed by the mass looting.
I cannot believe the Pentagon and State Department are occupied with people as obtuse as press accounts on this matter since mid April would have one believe.
Something happened to the Iruk Vase, the White Lady and 30 or so other priceless items from humanity’s common past.
Today’s Post said the vase “had been bolted to a podium… but looters breached the glass case and ripped the vase from its base.”

Who are the wealthy men that committed this brutal act of cultural rape and where are the missing objects now?
How can our great and good United States of America countenance the nonsense we have observed in in the media regarding this theft and recovery?
Here is the lead paragraph that wasn’t in today’s Washington Post:
The 33 to 38 priceless items mysteriously stolen from the Iraq National Museum as Baghdad fell are still missing. Investigators have no suspects or leads.

I have several posts on this topic that begin April 14th. I wish I were blog savvy enough to link them. Yeah and if pigs could fly I’d have a linkable email address in that embarrassingly empty right margin email box. Any format language tips will be gratefully attempted!

Photos: Jamal Saidi-Reuters,

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