Revealed: the real story behind the great Iraq Museum thefts

How the US army's Indiana Jones went after Baghdad's raiders of the antiquities

David Randall
Sunday 13 November 2005 01:00 GMT

The story of what really happened inside the Iraq Museum when thousands of valuable antiquities were stolen in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 US invasion has been revealed in a new book.

Written by the chief investigator, it says there were three separate thefts, at least one of which was an inside job, another the work of professionals, and a third where fleeing Iraq military had left open a door which let in the looters. At least 13,864 objects were stolen, making it the biggest museum theft in history.

But the book reveals that, with an estimated 500,000 objects in the museum and thieves having the run of the place for 36 hours, the wonder is the loss was not far closer to the original, inaccurate, reports of 170,000 items. And the efforts of Iraqi, US and Italian officials, plus police and customs worldwide, have so far led to the recovery of 5,400 items, nearly 700 from inside the US and Britain.

All this - as well as the remarkable tale of the reclaiming of the fabulous Treasure of Nimrud - is told in Thieves of Baghdad, available only in the US, and written by Matthew Bogdanos who has been described, with only a minimum of hyperbole, as a real-life Indiana Jones.

He was born in New York, as a boy worked in his family's Greek restaurant, became a marine, a reservist, a lawyer in the city's district attorney's office, lost his home in the 9/11 attacks, and had to use all his marine training to fight through crowds and emergency service workers to rescue his family from an flat whose windows were blown in and contents covered in two inches of ash. Weeks later, he was in uniform as a marine Lt-Colonel, on operations in Afghanistan, and thence, by 2003, to southern Iraq.

It was here, on 18 April in Basra, he heard the Iraq Museum has been plundered. Bogdanos - a keen amateur classicist - requested permission to investigate, put a team together, and hurried north to Baghdad. He arrived at the museum compound on 20 April. It was not a pretty sight. It had been used as a fighting position, Iraq army uniforms were scattered all around, as were expended RPGs. In a courtyard smoldered the remains of hundreds of Ba'ath party cards and files. And, above the centre door to the main building, was a large handwritten sign 'Death to all Americans and Zionist pigs'.

Saddam's forces had abandoned the museum sometime on 10 April. Two days later senior curators returned, chasing off the last of the looters that had numbered 300-400 at their height. It was in this window of 36 hours that the thefts occurred.

The first area the US team entered was the administrative offices where the destruction was "wanton and absolute". Everyone of the 120 offices had been ransacked, every piece of furniture broken. But, in the public galleries, the damage was far lighter. Of 451 display cases, only 28 were damaged, but nearly all were empty. To his relief, Bogdanos learnt their contents had been removed by staff ahead of the invasion to a "secret place" within the museum known only to the five most senior officials. Where that was, no one was then saying. But 40 antiquities - including some of the best, like the Sacred Vase of Warka, the Mask of Warka, Bassetki Statue and the eighth century BC ivory 'Lioness Attacking a Nubian' - were stolen. The thieves, says Bogdanos, were "organised and selective".

The above-ground storage rooms told a different story. Here was where looters had struck, getting in via a door left open by Iraqi soldiers who, even as they fled, discarded their uniforms in a trail of clothing. The looters has swept entire shelves of items into bags, and the result was 3,138 missing items, such as jars, vessels and shards.

On 2 May [check], Bogdanos and companion crept down a dark hidden stairwell towards the basement storage area. They saw its great metal door was wide open with no sign of a forced entry. Someone in the know had got there first. "The chaos," wrote Bogdanos, "was shocking: 103 fishing tackle-sized plastic boxes, originally containing thousands of cylinder seals, beads, amulets and jewellery were randomly thrown in all directions Amid the devastation, hundreds of surrounding larger, but empty, boxes had been untouched. It was immediately clear that these thieves knew what they were looking for and where to look." The investigators feared the worst. But they discovered that 30 cabinets containing part of the world's finest collection of cylinder seals and tens of thousands of gold and silver coins were untouched.

What Bogdanos later surmised was that the thieves had the relevant keys, but had dropped them and, in the unlit basement and lacking torches, had been unable to find them again. What, however, had been taken was 4,795 cylinder seals, 5,542 coins, glass bottles, beads, amulets, and jewellery. As Bogdanos wrote: "It is simply inconceivable that this area had been found, breached and entered by anyone who did not have an intimate insider's knowledge of the museum." Bogdanos fingerprinted all 23 staff who returned after the invasion and were known to have access to storage rooms. But many staff did not return, including Jassim Muhamed, the museum's former head of security. Yet the biggest obstacle to the investigators' work was the poor state of the under-funded museum's records. The storage rooms, for instance, contained thousands of unlogged excavated items. A full inventory did not exist, and, Bogdanos estimated, would take years to compile. Recovery of missing items had to take priority.

An amnesty started within two days. Word was put out to immams, newspapers and television, and on the street that anyone returning an item would be asked only one question: "Would you like a cup of tea?". An Arabic-speaking member of Bogdanos's team was posted on the gate to solicit returns, and the team walked the streets, drank endless cups of tea in cafes, and played backgammon with anyone who looked as if they might know something. In one, Bogdanos, still a keen amateur boxer at 45, staged an impromptu sparring match with a local champion to provide a diversion while a colleague quizzed an informant.

The response was almost immediate. Bags containing an item would be dropped off, items allegedly taken for 'safe-keeping' were brought in by hand, some antiquities were left at mosques, others simply handed to a patrolling US soldier. The Sacred Vase of Warka, after two weeks of negotiation, was returned in June in a car boot, along with 95 other artifacts. Bogdanos was even contacted when on leave and handed a 4,000 year old Akkadian piece in a brown envelope as he sat in a Manhattan coffee shop. All but 101 of the 3,138 items stolen from the storage rooms have been recovered, yet at least 8,500 pieces are still missing, the most significant being the Lioness ivory.

Just over 2,000 recoveries were the result of raids, the biggest being at a farmhouse on 23 September. Under a foot and a half of dirt in the backyard was the Mask of Warka. In November, two raids on the same day produced the Nimrud brazier, used to warm the throne room of King Shalmaneser III in the ninth century BC, plus 76 pieces stolen from the basement, including the Bassetki Statue, which had been covered in grease and hidden in a cesspit.

Bogdanos says one of their best sources of information was the now discredited Dr Ahmed Chalabi, whose Iraqi National Congress forces stopped a truck bound for Iran and found on it no fewer than 465 items. Meanwhile, with publicity and photographs of some missing items circulated to Interpol and customs, more of the stolen items started to be seized abroad - 1,395 of them by the end of 2003. Some 669 were seized in 2003 when four FedEx boxes, addressed to a New York art dealer, were impounded by US customs at Newark airport.

But what of the fabulous Treasure of Nimrud, 1,000 pieces of gold, crowns, necklaces, rosettes, bracelets and precious stones from the eighth century BC? One of the great archaeological discoveries of the last hundred years, it had been seen in public only once, briefly, in 1989. A year later, it was moved by the Hussein regime to the Central Bank. It had not been seen since, and, shortly before the battle for Baghdad, Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, had emptied that bank's vaults of much of their contents.

On 26 May, the investigators showed up at the bank's vaults, and found them flooded with 20ft of water. A National Geographic film crew agreed to pay for them to be pumped out, in return for an exclusive. On 4 and 5 June the team returned, and found in the vaults a collection of wooden boxes (plus the body of a would-be robber). One by one they were opened, revealing the burial goods from the royal tombs of Ur, until one box remained. At 1.43pm, its lid was prised open and there was every Hollywood film's idea of ancient treasure - gold crowns, bracelets, necklaces and anklets.

And Bogdanos? Early next year he will be back at the DA's office, conductinginvestigation into worldwide antiquities trade. All his royalties from his book are being donated to the Iraq Museum.

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