Art World: Restoring Iraq's art patrimony

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  May 1, 2003 at 10:22 AM
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NEW YORK, May 1 (UPI) -- The United States must take the responsibility in seeing that as much of Iraq's cultural patrimony be restored as soon as possible in view of its failure to prevent the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad and the Nebuchadnezzar Museum in Babylon.

Among the missing items are objects of immeasurable value to world history, such as early tools used by mankind's first agrarian society in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and cuneiform tablets telling of a great flood similar to the one described in the Bible's Old Testament.

Also looted were the National Library and a collection of historic Korans in Baghdad but much of this material is reported to have been burned and probably is not replaceable except for what can be duplicated electronically from copies that exist outside Iraq.

New York University is currently forming such a library of Afghan printed books to replace the Kabul National Library collection that was destroyed by the Taliban.

But Iraqi works of art -- sculpture, paintings, cuneiform tablets and other original artifacts -- are less likely to have been destroyed by looters, many of who are suspected of being professional thieves knowledgeable enough to know what they were stealing could be sold to black market art dealers.

Some 48 paintings from the National Museum in Baghdad already have been recovered being smuggled into Syria, and other artwork can be expected to be found in the hands of smugglers in the next few months. This will most likely be in the form of large stone sculptures, relief carvings, and painted ceramics rather than small, delicate objects such as the gold jewelry, glass objects, ivory and textiles.

The 80-year-old National Museum had a collection of 170,000 objects covering 7,000 years of Mesopotamian regional history and touching on the cultures of the Babylonians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Akkadians, Persians, Greeks, Parthians, Jews, and Arabs. The Nebuchadnezzar Museum, a creation of Saddam Hussein, housed archaeological finds from the site of ancient Babylon.

Losses at these museums come in the wake of the ransacking of nine of Iraq's 13 regional museums in the 1991 Gulf War. It is believed that most of the artifacts looted then were sold on the international art market.

Representatives of UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, and Mesopotamian scholars from many lands already have met in Paris to discuss ways to avoid further dispersal of artifacts representing Iraq's patrimony, only a fraction of which ever had been studied by experts or published.

Qualified experts from UNESCO and the British Museum will be sent to Iraq as soon as possible to help the nation's understaffed museums and cultural sites deal with the current dilemma. Fortunately, the United States will soon rejoin UNESCO, after boycotting the agency for several years due to policy differences, and should take a leading role in helping Iraq recover its heritage.

Getting Iraq's museums and archaeological sites back in business is vital to the future of tourism, which could be an important source of income for the newly liberated country.

Here are some practical suggestions on how the situation should be handled:

(1) UNESCO should be given temporary responsibility for Iraq's museums, cultural sites, and areas of archaeological interest until such a time when Iraqi personnel are capable of taking over.

(2) A fund should be set up by UNESCO to attract donations from nations, foundations, and individuals to pay for retrieval of looted materials and revitalization of museums and libraries.

(3) Immunity from prosecution should be offered anyone returning looted material, and compensation should be paid for such material in amounts reflecting rarity and historical value.

(4) Borders should be carefully guarded against smuggling, and all sales of looted material to private dealers should be criminalized and nullified.

(5) Photographs and descriptions of important looted treasures should be distributed to border authorities and U.S. Army personnel so that such objects are easily identifiable.

(6) The world's art auction houses should be informed to be on the lookout for looted material and warned that authorities will be stricter in requiring provenance (a record of previous ownership) for antiquities put up for auction.

(7) The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the American Armed Forces, set up in 1943 to protect cultural treasures put at risk by World War II, should be reconstituted so that it can provide a safeguard against a repetition of what has happened in Iraq in any future conflicts.

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