British Museum leads rescue bid for Iraqi heritage


The world's leading museums are to join forces to send an emergency team to Iraq to help rebuild its shattered cultural heritage. The Louvre, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, New York's Metropolitan and the Hermitage in St Petersburg are among those preparing to contribute to a task force led by the British Museum.

The alliance is being co-ordinated by Neil MacGregor, the British Museum's director, who last week pledged to send his own curators to help assess the extent of the cultural "catastrophe" suffered by the Iraqi capital. Up to 170,000 priceless antiquities – many hailing from the earliest Mesopotamian civilisations – are still missing from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad following an outbreak of organised looting last weekend. Mosul Museum was also ransacked.

News of Mr MacGregor's latest initiative emerged yesterday, as Jordan declared it had seized 42 stolen Iraqi paintings from journalists entering Jordan from Iraq at the al-Karameh border post. Customs officers in America were immediately alerted to watch out for any suspicious items at border crossings.

Mr MacGregor, who returned to England on Friday after chairing a meeting about the crisis at Unesco in Paris, is to send the British Museum's keeper of Near East antiquities, John Curtis, to Baghdad this week. A team of six restorers and three curators will follow. Meanwhile, representatives from the other contributing institutions have been called to a summit at the British Museum on 29 April.

"What's amazing is how little anybody actually knows about what exactly is missing," Mr MacGregor said.

"The first thing we must do is send a fact-finding mission out there. We also need to get governments to stop anyone from importing any of these items into their countries."

Mr MacGregor, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the earlier failure of American forces in Baghdad to station guards outside its museum, said urgent steps were also needed to safeguard major archaeological sites outside the cities.

"We just don't know what's happening at sites like Nineveh and Ur, but these are some of the earliest and most important cities on Earth, and we must protect them from looting too," he said.

Mr MacGregor, who suspects that gangs involved in the Baghdad looting had links to unscrupulous Western collectors, also revealed that a group of private American benefactors has agreed to help set up a reward scheme designed to encourage people to return stolen objects.

"Unfortunately," Mr MacGregor explained, "if you kill off the black market people will melt down gold because the items are worth less as antiquities."

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