Selling-out Iraq’s Cultural Heritage

Despite the fact that the United States and Great Britain are signatories of the 1954 The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, in the past weeks Iraqi museums, archaeological sites and libraries have been massively plundered or destroyed. Various witnesses have reported that during the first days of looting, the Anglo-American authorities stood by or even refused to offer protection.

What is so distinctive about the looting of historic artefacts is that they might be gone forever. While certain parts of infrastructure may be rebuilt, cultural goods once removed from their context cannot be replaced. Even when found again on the antiquity market, it is extremely hard to put them back into context: to verify whether they are original or fake, which sites they come from and which historical periods they have belonged to. Antiquities are neither renewable nor reparable. Compensation can only account for their measured material value, while their cultural, symbolical and historical value can neither be measured nor restored.

Looting provides the greatest hazard to non-renewable cultural goods, monuments and sites, even more than damages caused by environmental pollution or construction. The “developed world” is also affected by this phenomenon, however most looting takes place on the territory of politically and economically marginalised countries. Cambodia, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Mexico, China, Egypt, and Angkor are being systematically plundered of their cultural goods since decades. Especially in periods of violent conflict, a combination of factors facilitates the massive looting of cultural goods: lawlessness, poverty, dismantled institutions, and the priorisation of other issues on national agendas. Consequences are not only the direct and physical looting or destruction of cultural goods, but also the indirect and long-term undermining of institutional capabilities that are necessary for the safeguarding and sustainable use of cultural resources.

Looting can be driven by political goals, such as the plundering or destruction of objects and monuments considered “non-Islamic” in Afghanistan. However in the majority of cases, looting is commercially motivated and stimulated by the international demand for antiquities. Several attempts to develop solutions have failed because they concentrated on the “supply side” (looters, smugglers, petty traders) while neglecting the “demand side” – antiquity collectors and museums, both generally enjoying high social status. Even draconian punishments of looters, smugglers and petty traders in some countries had no significant influence on the dynamics of the market.

The implementation of international conventions is mostly hampered by the “half legality” of the trade in cultural goods. With the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting & Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, UNESCO has made an important contribution to the international protection of cultural goods, however the convention has not been ratified by the biggest antiquity-importing countries (Germany, Switzerland, England and Japan). In addition, even though looting is generally prohibited, the purchase of cultural goods once they have passed national borders is considered legal in many countries. Archaeologists and experts in cultural heritage legislation such as Dr. Ricardo Elia from Boston University are warning since years that more attention has to be paid to the consumers of cultural goods. Commitment to international conventions requires to also oblige those individuals and institutions that trade, purchase or examine cultural goods, rather than to place all responsibility on the shoulders of the “supply countries” (that often lack the necessary resources and personnel). Moreover, the goal should not neither be mere law-enforcement, nor to criminalise private ownership of cultural goods, but to strengthen ethics and solidarity, and a sense of awareness that access to cultural goods should not be monopolised by the rich and powerful. 

Not only this war has brought about massive destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage. Already in the first Gulf war, nine museums have been looted, their objects either stolen or destroyed. Some museums have been burnt. Experts estimate that around 4000 major objects have disappeared, a portion of which was sold in international antiquity markets. Afterwards, the sanction’s regime, poverty and a lack of institutional and technological development have equally contributed to the sell-out of Iraqi cultural heritage. In the 1990ies, a whole illegal industry has developed, financed and steered from abroad according to archaeologist McGuire Gibson of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. The looting of archaeological sites was systematically organised, with sometimes up to 300 looters at one location. Thousands of Iraqi objects have flooded the international markets since then and are sold in renowned auction houses. Among other sites, Baghdad’s Iraq Museum, one of the world’s most important museums, has been looted and partially destroyed during this recent war. Interestingly, not only objects have been stolen, but also the documentation of objects and the museum’s archives – hence the entire “history” of the museum. This of course will make it even harder to contextualise objects appearing in international markets. The museum director suspects that it has been the work of professionals rather than unorganised crowds. On various news channels he showed glasscutters found in the museum after the looting. Prior to the war operations, three appeals have been made: the first by international scholars, the second by Iraqi archaeologists, and the third by the world’s leading museums and most prominent universities. Gibson advised the Pentagon on the protection if Iraq’s cultural heritage. The military was provided with a map of 150 important sites. He had the impression that they “took the issue seriously”. Museum employees however, who put their lives at risk, reported that they begged Anglo-American troops to protect the museum – “they just didn’t care”.

The United States belongs to the few antiquity-importing countries that have ratified the UNESCO Convention. In addition, national laws in the United States restrict the trade in looted cultural goods. However, simultaneously to the prospect of war against Iraq approaching, a newly established group of American collectors publicly demanded to legalise the import of Iraqi antiquities into the United States. The inaugural meeting of the board of advisers to “The American Council for Cultural Policy” took place on October 9, 2002, including private collectors, art dealers, curators, and directors of major museum, legal scholars and museum lawyers. The objectives of the group are as follows: 1) to counterweight the “retentionist” message put out by archaeologically “rich” countries that in the Council’s view won over the Clinton administration, 2) to revise the United States’ Cultural Property Implementation Act in order to minimise efforts by foreign nations to block the import of antiquities to the United States, and 3) to discourage the use of a 1977 court decision as a judicial precedent to target trade and collectors by means of the National Stolen Property Act (source: The Art Newspaper Online, October 2002).

The Council already went into action: It weighed in on behalf of Frederick Schultz who was convicted in February 2002 of massive illegal trade with Egyptian antiquities into the United States via Switzerland. Schultz, a Princeton graduate and former president of the “National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art” as well as co-founder of the “International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art”, enjoyed high reputation as arts expert and gallery owner. His clients included not only private collectors, but for example also the New York Metropolitan Museum.

The Council claims that “legitimate” private collecting contributes to the protection of cultural goods that public museums cannot afford to buy or safeguard properly. Yet, crucial issues such as looting, smuggling, and the exploitation of crisis and poverty, go entirely unmentioned. Patty Gerstenblith, spokeswoman of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the biggest and oldest archaeological association in the United States, strongly criticises the Council’s initiative to legalise the unrestricted import of antiquities to the United States. She sees “strong interests” involved. The AIA fears that the Council will lobby the American authorities in Iraq to change the Iraqi antiquities law. So far, Iraqi law prohibits the trade in looted antiquities, which therefore could only be sold on the “black market”. Now, that museums, archaeological sites and libraries all over Iraq have already been damaged, the future scope of the loss will also depend on whether the United States will open their markets for stolen Iraqi antiquities, and whether some European and Asian countries will reconsider ratifying and implementing international conventions.



Leave a comment